Former mayor Barnes highlights women’s fight against Pendergast machine

untitled (16 of 29)Kansas City women of the 1930s and 40s have not gotten their due for the role they played in bringing down political boss Tom Pendergast.

At least until now.

Yesterday, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes did her part to tell the story of the role women’s groups played, and she introduced us to a new name that should become better known: Claude Gorton.

Barnes started her talk at the Kansas City Public Library by explaining she’s working on a not-for-credit doctoral program at Park University, and she recently completed a research paper on the role of women in the 1940 Kansas City elections.

She calls the women “civic housekeepers” for their efforts to sweep corruption out of the city.

Most people know that in the 1930s, the Pendergast machine controlled Kansas City and gave it a reputation for being wide-open for liquor, gambling, and vice. He also controlled city hall.

Barnes paused to share a family story that illustrated the extent of Pendergast’s control. Her cousin, well-respected journalist Walter Cronkite, worked briefly as a young reporter in Kansas City. He often told his family how he voted before going in to work during his first election day in Kansas City. And throughout the day, his boss came to him twice, instructing him to vote again, even as Cronkite insisted he already had. Throughout the day, at the urging of his pro-Pendergast boss, Cronkite voted three times rather than risk losing his job. Such, he learned, was the way in Kansas City.

Barnes went back to her history to recount how, encouraged early on by reformer Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg, women realized they needed to get involved to help take back the city from Pendergast control. Women’s groups became more and more organized until the 1940 election, when their get-out-to-vote effort went into overdrive.

untitled (5 of 29)Women, she said, were an essential part of the Charter Party campaign to recall the Pendargast-backed mayor and city council even after the boss had gone to prison. Women’s groups, using the campaign slogan “ballots and brooms versus bosses and bullets,” used a pin shaped like a broom to show their support for non-Pendergast candidates.

Under the leadership of Mrs. George Gorton, known as Claude Gorton, 7500 women got involved in the 1940 election as volunteers: making phone calls, driving others to polling places, and reminding other women to get out and vote.

With their help, Pendergast’s people were voted out of office.

Barnes says the legacy of these women and their noble experiment is simple.

“It succeeded.”


  1. Cathie Chesen says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is a very interesting story.

  2. Scott Wenger says:

    With an election now looming in less than 3 weeks it is going to be interesting to see how things pan out.
    What would Mrs. Gorton and her cohorts do today to straighten out this mess?
    Is there anybody like them today?

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