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Morally and Legally Entitled Women’s Political Activism in the Interwar Period in Kansas City 185 Chapter Five Maisie [sic] Jones Ragan. Who wants to vote for a colored woman on the council? —­ Marjorie M. Beach, The Mayor’s Wife: Crusade in Kansas City On the morning of municipal elections, Tuesday, November 3, 1925, representatives of the Pendergast machine greeted voters with handbills asking whether they would vote for “a colored woman” for the city council. The election took place under the new Kansas City Charter approved in February of that year. The charter replaced a thirty-­ two-­ member, two-­ chamber city governance structure with a single council of nine people. Other handbills made similarly distorted claims. Masie Jones Ragan, in fact, was not African American, but rather a white woman with a long history of activism in the community largely through her association with one of Kansas City’s oldest and largest women’s clubs—­ the Kansas City Athenaeum—­ and through success in winning a seat in the upper house of aldermen in the previous election. Although her candidacy in 1925 was unsuccessful, it reflected the aspiration of middle-­and upper-­ class women to build on their recently acquired ability to vote by gaining electoral victory and participating in governing the city. These Kansas City women—­ members of the Athenaeum, the Woman’s City Club, and other organizations—­ sought to assert power in their community and beyond. They embraced a Progressive spirit that revered what they envisioned to be good government. Their aspirations reflected their experience in women’s organizations, the foretaste of suffrage gained from the registration drives they conducted as part of the war effort, and the opportunities that remained for women’s political participation even after 186 Chapter Five gaining the vote in 1920. At the local level, the women’s campaigns for city offices and the school board in the interwar period united progressive Republican and antimachine, independent Democratic women. In a similar way, African American women’s groups often acted in unison with the white clubs. The women’s campaigns for city offices and the school board in the interwar period challenge the scholarly view that after gaining the right to vote in 1920, women struggled for unity and the political power that accompanied it. Historian Nancy Cott, for example, argues that disparate interests caused divisions to resurface and unity to unravel once women obtained the vote. Historian Dorothy Sue Cobble posits that women’s lobbying power decreased in the 1920s as women’s unity fractured. Women’s groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion Auxiliary vehemently opposed the work of Progressive women on issues of war and peace. Views of sexual normalcy also shifted, and women who lived outside of a heterosexual relationship came to be viewed as maladjusted. While women gained a small number of seats in state legislatures and other governmental bodies, historian Wendy B. Sharer advances the view that women lost power within the party structure and worked to assert influence through such organizations as the League of Women Voters, founded by Carrie Chapman Catt, and the Women’s International League, founded by Jane Addams.1 This chapter argues, by contrast, that women in Kansas City remained united in the cause of women’s political participation even if they were not wholly successful in their efforts to gain elective office. Women’s expression of political power came through their success in organizing during the war, in gaining and maintaining positions on the Kansas City School Board, in participating in party activities, and in campaigns for municipal reform. These women sought a role in local governance as they challenged the limits of female power in their community. With the defeat of Masie Jones Ragan for city council in 1925, the activism of these women changed, but it did not end.2 Kansas City Women and the World War With the American entry into the world war in 1917, Athenaeum member Mary Harmon Weeks served as chairman of the local branch of the National Council of Defense. While not a part of her work with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs or the National Conference of Parents and Teachers, her association with those organizations lent credibility to her campaign to register eighty-­ three thousand women in Kansas City. The Morally and Legally Entitled 187 purpose of the registration, as described by the Star, was “for home work and to fill such places as they can...


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