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  • Benevolence, Moral Reform, Equality: Women's Activism in Kansas City, 1870 to 1940 by K. David Hanzlick
  • Sara Egge
K. David Hanzlick, Benevolence, Moral Reform, Equality: Women's Activism in Kansas City, 1870 to 1940. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2018. 316 pp. $50.00 (cloth).

K. David Hanzlick examines how women in Kansas City claimed the public sphere and became political agents between 1870 and 1940 in his book Benevolence, Moral Reform, Equality. As the title suggests, these women did so by organizing for charity, agitating to combat evils in society, and campaigning for political rights like suffrage. While they approached this tripartite process in ways that resembled their eastern counterparts' strategies, Kansas City's women diverged in how they engaged in this activism. Hanzlick argues that Kansas City's location at the intersection of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and along the border of one slave and one free state helped its development as a western commercial metropolis and fueled a potent political mix. Business and agricultural promise lured people to a place rife with simmering sectional antagonisms. It was this context that made unification among reformers paramount. It also encouraged women to build public reputations as reformers and leaders in their community. [End Page 190] Civic engagement and shared desire for economic growth healed divisions and established bonds of loyalty.

Along with an introduction and conclusion, the book contains five chapters that detail the civic engagement that politicized women and earned them public reputations. Hanzlick's reliance upon newspapers, census records, city directories, and other primary sources in Kansas City–based archives to tell his story allows him to delve deeply into the details. Hanzlick follows "consistent Kansas Citians" and newcomers; the latter typically hailed from the northeast, came from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious backgrounds, and supported economic development amid dense social networks. Chapter 2 explains how many of these upper-class women joined a single relief agency, the Women's Christian Association (WCA), in the 1870s. While benevolence to the poor seemed the primary focus of the WCA, Hanzlick notes that members pursued a variety of reform activities to end other social ills like prostitution and to secure the right to vote. Over time, the membership became increasingly elite and focused solely on benevolence until a general relief agency, led by men, appeared in 1880.

Kansas City's male leaders adopted an ambivalent approach to the poor from 1880 to World War I in the wake of dramatic population growth and unfettered corporate capitalism in the city. The regional hub attracted transient workers, and disagreements emerged about how to contend with such a large population of poor people. Hanzlick places these debates in a broader context in which reformers wrestled with questions about individual or structural blame. In chapter 3, he examines the male-led Board of Public Welfare, a Progressive-Era entity begun in 1910, telling the story of how these reformers struggled to discard notions that character building, rather than major structural change, was the key to eliminating poverty. Chapter 4 takes up the narrative from chapter 2, locating reform in a variety of local chapters of national organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, General Federation of Women's Clubs, National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Young Women's Christian Association, and Catholic Ladies' Aid Society. While these groups embraced similar reforms—such as prohibition, woman suffrage, and consent laws—they worked separately. Chapter 5 carries the narrative to the eve of World War II, finding that unlike the divisions that plagued women at the national level, women in Kansas City remained united. They sought political participation in local governance by supporting campaigns for municipal reform, engaging in party politics, and running for local offi ce. [End Page 191]

Benevolence, Moral Reform, Equality not only successfully traces the history of women's activism in Kansas City, but it also speaks to histories of social welfare and municipal reform that included men. Some chapters, like chapter 3, pursue questions about the development of midwestern metropolitanism more so than women's activism. Hanzlick also rightly argues that his work opens doors to further investigations and that scholars should treat his...