“One of the most important precepts of the movement for women’s rights is that the aspirations of women are bounded only, by their talents, abilities and potentialities as individual human beings.”
You likely know at least a little bit about feminist activist and icon Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine. She has fought for decades for women’s equality, particularly equal pay. But it’s also just as likely that you haven’t heard of my next Groundbreaker, Dorothy Kenyon. While she doesn’t get the credit she deserves, she was an important forerunner to (and early participant in) the women’s equality movement that would gain traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was a crusader for civil liberties, particularly for the poor, in the 20th century as late as the 1970s.
Dorothy Kenyon was born in 1888 in New York City. She enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing, growing up on the Upper West Side with a family summer home in Connecticut. She attended the private Horace Mann School and Smith College in Northampton, MA (as did Gloria Steinem! And as did I!), where she studied economics and history. A few years after college, Kenyon spent a year in Mexico, which opened her eyes to the “poverty and injustice” that existed in the world. It was after this trip that she decided to give up her life as a “social butterfly” and become a social activist. She began law school at New York University, receiving her degree and admission to the bar in 1917 (see Dorothy Kenyon papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College).
Instead of taking the rather easy road of joining her family’s law firm after receiving her degree, Kenyon worked various other legal jobs, including working for the US government in Washington, where she researched wartime labor patterns and collected economic data for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. She eventually started her own law firm with another Dorothy, Dorothy Straus, which stayed open through the 1930s.
It was beginning in the 1930s when Kenyon started to devote her energies to many progressive social causes. She received many public appointments in New York City throughout the decade, and also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she pushed for more work to be done against sexism. She gave speeches throughout the United States on civil liberties, the law, and women’s equality. She was also appointed by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia to a position on the Municipal Court from 1939-40, after which she was still affectionately called “Judge Kenyon” (Dorothy Kenyon papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College). She also became the first delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1947.
Kenyon’s name really became known during the Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, when she was one of many questioned for having Communist sympathies. She denied involvement of any kind with the Communist Party, though she had been involved with liberal and anti-Fascist organizations. Her appearance and denouncement of McCarthy as “a liar” who “can go to Hell” gained her a great deal of media attention, including a supportive editorial in The New York Times, as well as that of former First Lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt. But unfortunately, despite the fact that the Senate declared Kenyon of any wrongdoing, enough people in power found her suspicious enough that she was never offered another political appointment afterwards. But none of this stopped her from continuing to push for what she believed in for the rest of her life.
In the 1960s and 70s, as civil rights and equality work ramped up, Dorothy Kenyon was right in the middle of it. She continued her legal work with the ACLU, where she worked with friend and fellow Groundbreaker Pauli Murray on sex discrimination cases, including a case that ruled that women have an equal right to serve on juries. This was a precursor to the work Murray and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would do on the case Reed v. Reed, which ruled against discrimination in administering estates. Ginsburg included Kenyon’s name on the cover of the brief along with Murray’s (see further details in my Pauli Murray post). Kenyon also prepared briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and worked to end segregation in the New York City public schools. Towards the end of her life she was involved in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and helped establish legal services for the poor on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. She also supported birth control and a woman’s right to choose.
Kenyon died of stomach cancer in 1972 five days before she would have turned 84. She didn’t tell most people that she was sick, and continued her work until her death. She never married, despite having various romantic relationships with men, but believed most in retaining her independence.
What I find particularly interesting about Dorothy Kenyon was while she believed in fighting sexism and racism, she had very specific views on sexism and how best to fight it. Though she lived right around the time that women were given the right to vote in the United States, she was not a major participant in the suffrage movement. She was also initially against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the proposed amendment that would guarantee equal legal rights for all Americans regardless of sex that has been discussed and debated since 1921. As good as this would sound to crusaders for women’s equality, Kenyon was initially opposed to the ERA because she feared it would negatively affect working-class women. By the end of her life, however, she had changed her views on this and became a supporter of the ERA.
Dorothy Kenyon laid the groundwork for Gloria Steinem and other leaders in the women’s equality movement with her trailblazing work for the women’s and civil rights movements through almost the entire 20th century. She was fully dedicated to this work, as Steinem has been and continues to be today. The two are also similar in their views on marriage; Steinem only married once, late in life.
Kenyon was a fascinating figure and, like many Groundbreakers, very ahead of her time. But I can’t help but wonder what kind of difference she could have made if her reputation hadn’t been damaged by the awful Joseph McCarthy. Though she wasn’t blacklisted like others were, which truly destroyed their livelihoods, just being questioned was enough for some people to not want anything to do with her. What immediately came to my mind was what if she had had the opportunity to run for office? She could have been one of the first female representatives in the House, or even a Senator. Just imagine what she could have fought for if she was in such a position of power. At the same time, however, perhaps she did her best work out of the political spotlight, where she could do things as she wanted, not as the rigid rules of politics and Congress dictated.
I learned a great deal about Dorothy Kenyon while working on this post. As a fellow Smithie, I should know at least something about her! Her beliefs in equality, taking into account people of all economic classes, combined with her fearlessness in the face of obstacles, make her an inspiring figure, even 130 years after her birth and almost 50 years after her death. Much of what she spent her entire life fighting for has still not been solved, so we would do good by her example to consider the plight of those who are given less attention. This is why she is the ultimate example of an Underground Groundbreaker. It is just a shame that she is not more well known and that there is not as much information out there on her as there should be. But I hope this piece on her can improve awareness of her and her life fighting for what is right.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Dorothy Kenyon interesting or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites I’ve included below. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. Unfortunately there is not as much out there on her as there probably should be, but this is what I have been able to find:
Wikipedia bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Kenyon#Popular_culture
More detailed bio from Dorothy Kenyon Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA: https://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/sophiasmith/mnsss35_bioghist.html
More on Kenyon Papers: https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/agents/kenyon.html
Short piece on Kenyon Papers from Sophia Smith Collection: http://www.amdev.net/upa/10438KenyonSignFctsht.pdf
ACLU biography along with other important figures: https://www.aclu.org/other/women-who-put-womens-rights-aclu-agenda
Wikipedia entry on Equal Rights Amendment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_Rights_Amendment#Text