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The Quality and Equality of Mercy Are Strained The Rise and Fall of the Female-Led General Relief Agency, 1870 to 1879 45 Chapter Two Relying upon faith in the virtue of the cause, and believing that those who trust in the Lord and invoke His aid in every good word and work will be sustained, we went forth with bold hearts and willing hands to carry out our ideas of practical Christianity. —­ Laura Coates Reed, In Memoriam: Sarah Walter Chandler Coates The new and rapidly growing society that had emerged in Kansas City by 1870 provided the opening for women to negotiate the meaning of gender and activism as they provided assistance to Kansas City’s poor. In contrast to more established eastern cities, middle-­and upper-­ class Protestant women with northern leanings in Kansas City formed a single organization to advance a diverse set of goals.1 Upper-­ class benevolent women sought to provide assistance to the poor, reformers embraced the cause of eliminating societal ills such as prostitution, and yet a third group of women sought equality for the sexes, including the ballot and property rights. To assist poor women, fallen women, and all women who lacked rights on an equal footing with men, a group of charitably inclined Protestant ladies met at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) during the week of January 15, 1870, to form the Women’s Christian Association.2 The actions of the founding members of the WCA reflected the willingness and even the desire to extend the hearth into the street, the bordello, and the legal and electoral spheres. These women reflected three different points of view yet coalesced to form a single citywide organization of Protestant women where none had existed. According to the Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce, the WCA was founded for the express purpose of exercising Christian benevolence and “saving charity towards our suffering sisters in this vicinity.” 46 Chapter Two The organization issued “an earnest invitation” to “all ladies desirous of extending charity to the needy to be present at the next meeting.” Among their members were counted “ladies of influence and wealth,” yet “all the members are earnest in the cause and will do noble work for ‘sweet charity’s sake.’” The newspaper editorially intoned that these women deserved the encouragement and support from all benevolent and philanthropically inclined citizens.3 By December 1870, the WCA looked toward the founding of a “Home for the Friendless” to assist single women in the unwelcoming urban environment.4 The goals of the WCA in its first two years of existence embraced a philosophy of assistance to women in the newly forming urban center and the rescue of women who had fallen victim to male depredation. The stated object of the WCA in its earliest published announcement was to “exercise . . . saving charity towards our suffering sisters in the vicinity.”5 By the end of that year, the minutes reflected both the expansion of and the adherence to this purpose.6 The relationship between WCA members and the applicants for assistance from 1870 to 1876 provided evidence of the organization ’s shifting priorities and approaches to relief in a period of rapid change. The demands on the WCA for expanded relief to the general population increased as the population of the city grew and as natural disasters and man-­ made disasters—­ including a grasshopper invasion, drought, and economic depression—­ created widespread hardships. Through this process , the tripartite structure of the WCA began to unravel.7 The WCA’s purpose expanded within eleven months of the organization’s founding when a boy in need of assistance came to their attention. As the minutes printed in the Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce indicated: “[He was] a lad of about fourteen years, a cripple, entirely deprived of the use of the lower limbs by a spell of sickness. After obtaining from him all the information respecting his case as he was able to give, it was considered advisable to appoint a committee to visit his mother near the Novelty Mills, and ascertain in what manner [the association] could render assistance to the best advantage. Upon motion, Mrs. M. S. Doggett and Mrs. A. Crider were constituted said committee.”8 With the approval of that motion, this women’s relief organization expanded its activities—­ beyond assisting only women—­ to helping children and subsequently men and families. The all-­ female organization suddenly became a general relief agency. It dispensed aid through...


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