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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 126-131

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Dorothy Kenyon
Feminist Organizing 1919-1963

Kate Weigand and Daniel Horowitz

Dorothy Kenyon (1888-1972) is not well known among feminists or historians but, as a major player in the women's rights, civil rights, and labor movements from the 1920s to the 1970s, she should be. Born and bred in New York City, Kenyon received all the advantages conferred by her family's wealth, including a Smith College education and the freedom, in her words, to "misspend" five years as a "social butterfly" after her graduation from Smith. 1 Sensitized to the problems of poverty and injustice during a year she spent in Mexico with her father, Kenyon decided to enter New York University Law School in 1914 so she could pursue social justice through the legal system. The New York Bar admitted Kenyon in 1917 and, after an eight-year stint working for the U.S. government, she opened her own law firm in 1925.

Kenyon began her career in public service in 1936 as the first Deputy Commissioner of Licenses in New York City, where she later served as a Justice on the Municipal Court. In these positions, in her capacity as the U.S. representative to the League of Nations Commission to Study the Legal Status of Women from 1938-1940, and as the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women from 1947-1950, "Judge" Kenyon worked tirelessly to advance the status of women and minorities in the United States and abroad. Kenyon also held offices in many organizations including the National Consumers League, the League of Women Voters, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She served on the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1930 until her death. The sole woman on the board of the ACLU for many years, Kenyon was the center of the group's work against sex discrimination in the 1940s and 1950s.

Kenyon's commitment to liberal and radical causes led Senator Joseph McCarthy to attack her in 1950. Unlike so many who cowered before McCarthy, however, Kenyon acknowledged her support of progressive causes but denied that she was disloyal or a Communist. McCarthy's accusations ended her public service career, but Kenyon continued her activism. During the 1960s, she prepared briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU, promoted racial integration in New York City schools, took part in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and demonstrated with much younger women in the emerging women's liberation movement. She also continued her active involvement in New York [End Page 126] City politics and War on Poverty community projects. In 1968, at age 80, she established legal services for the poor in Lower Manhattan. Kenyon saw herself as an activist until the very end of her extraordinary life in 1972.

Kenyon's papers, which include materials generated by her ancestors and donated by younger members of her family, date from 1850 to 2000 and enhance the ability of historians to participate in the ongoing process of rethinking American women's roles as social activists across the twentieth century. At the same time, they remind us of the connections between a grounding in history and fights for social change. The papers, which occupy thirty linear feet, reveal the contours of Kenyon's extraordinary life and help illuminate the narrative of the history of feminism that has dominated the scholarship in the last thirty years; the relationship between feminism and other campaigns for social justice; the role of people from privileged social positions in movements for social justice; and the importance of an international perspective.


Dorothy Kenyon's papers complicate and enrich our narrative of the history of the twentieth-century women's movement. Historians usually divide this story into three stages: the triumph of first wave feminism by 1919; the doldrums of feminism from the 1920s until the early 1960s; and the birth of second wave feminism in the 1960s, without...


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