UMKC Students Create Digital Exhibit Analyzing the Rhetorical Performances of Women Garment Workers

The Center for Digital and Public Humanities is delighted to announce the launch of Unraveling Workers’ Letters: The Voices Behind Nelly Don, a digital exhibit that brings forward the voices of women who worked at Kansas City’s Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) in the 1930s and resisted unionization by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). The Donnelly Garment Company was one of the foremost producers of modestly priced dresses for American women in the early decades of the twentieth century. The company was founded and operated by Nell Donnelly, a highly successful businesswoman who undermined attempts to unionize her workers by implementing business practices that ensured their loyalty. The exhibit draws upon some 700 letters written by DGC employees in support of Donnelly and the working conditions she provided that are now archived at the State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City Research Center. The website interweaves images of the original letters written by historic Kansas City women and the research and writing of UMKC students, who examine the women’s experiences working at the Donnelly Garment Company and how they represented their work and relationship with the company’s owner in their writing.

The digital exhibit is a product of a course taught by Dr. Jane Greer, University of Missouri Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of English and the director of the UMKC Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship, on Rhetorics of Public Memory in Spring 2023. UMKC undergraduate students served as the exhibit’s curators. Students in the class were excited to work on a project that brings their research and writing to a public audience. Ella Whitfield (English BA, 2026) observed, “It was amazing to see all of our hard work put up for people everywhere to see.” Other students were pleased that they learned important practical skills through their work on the project. “Being able to do such an in-depth analysis of an incredible event in this city’s history provided me with skills I have never received in another class. Being immersed in the lives of these women was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world,” explained Lauren Leetch (Communication and English BA, 2025). The Unraveling Workers’ Letters digital exhibit was supported by a Center for Digital and Public Humanities fellowship in 2022-23.

Dr. Greer’s research focuses on the rhetoric of American women and how they represented themselves and their identities and concerns through their writing. Dr. Greer recently published Unorganized Women: Repetitive Rhetorical Labor & Low-Wage Workers, 1834-1937 with the University of Pittsburgh Press. The book profiles case studies that “reveal noteworthy patterns in how these women’s words helped to construct the complex web of class relations in which they were enmeshed. Rather than a teleological narrative of economic empowerment over the course of a century, Unorganized Women speaks to the enduring obstacles low- and no-wage women face, their creativity and resilience in the face of adversity, and the challenges that impede the creation of meaningful coalitions.” Dr. Greer shared her research shortly after her book’s publication at a talk at the Kansas City Public Library to an audience of over 100.