Dorothy Kenyon (February 17, 1888 – February 12, 1972) was a New York attorney, judge, feminist and political activist in support of civil liberties. During the era of McCarthyite persecution, she was accused of being affiliated with 28 communist front organizations. Kenyon was a charismatic speaker, and she regularly travelled throughout the U.S. lecturing about civil liberties, the law, and women's equality.

Dorothy Kenyon
Dorothy Kenyon.jpg
BornFebruary 17, 1888
DiedFebruary 12, 1972(1972-02-12) (aged 83)
New York City
Alma materSmith College
New York University Law School
Occupationattorney, judge

Life and careerEdit

Kenyon was born in New York City, to Maria Wellington (Stanwood) and William Houston Kenyon, a patent attorney. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with a family summer home in Lakeville, Connecticut. She was graduated from Horace Mann School in 1904 and attended Smith College, studying economics and history. At Smith, she also participated in hockey, tennis, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation in 1908, she spent a year in Mexico and observed poverty and injustice at a close range. After this experience, she decided to focus on social activism.[1] She was graduated from New York University School of Law in 1917.[1] Her first job was serving as a research specialist among the group of lawyers advising delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference.[1] As a research specialist, Kenyon studied wartime labor patterns and collected economic data for the conference. Before working for the U.S. government in Washington D.C., she briefly worked as a law clerk in a New York firm. From 1919-1925, Kenyon worked for the firm of Pitkin Rosenson and Henderson in New York City. In the 1920s, she was known for her support of birth control. In 1920 she was a co-founder of the Consumers Cooperative Services, which ran a chain of cooperative cafeterias in New York City.

In the 1930s and for most of her career, Kenyon devoted a great deal of her energy advocating for social justice and a variety of liberal and progressive causes such as the New Deal, Women's Rights, the Labor Movement, and consumer cooperatives. Also during 1930, Kenyon established the law firm of Straus and Kenyon with Dorothy Straus, with whom she worked in partnership to campaign for women's advancement until 1939,[1] when she became a justice of the municipal court. She identified herself as a feminist and although she played only a minor role in the suffrage movement, she took many leadership and officer roles and positions in many different women's organizations that focused on improving the status of women. In 1934, Kenyon was appointed as a member of the New York City Comptroller's council on taxes for the relief of the unemployed and in 1936 she chaired a committee to study procedure in women's courts where she called for more sympathetic treatment of prostitutes and stronger prosecution of the men who patronize them. From 1935-1937, she served as deputy license and commissioner of New York. From 1938-1943, she worked on a League of Nations committee entitled, Committee of Experts for the Study of the Legal Status of Women Around the World, and traveled regularly between New York and Europe. Dorothy Kenyon also was known as "Judge Kenyon" after serving as justice of the municipal court from 1939-1940. During her membership on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, from 1946 until 1950, Kenyon deplored the small role of women in the government of the United States.

In response to Joseph McCarthy's accusations on March 8, 1950 of her involvement with communist organizations,[1] she described him as "an unmitigated liar" and "a coward to take shelter in the cloak of congressional immunity."[2] She also responded with "I am not, and never have been, a supporter of, a member of, or a sympathizer with any organization known to me to be, or suspected by me, of being controlled or dominated by Communists." The following day, The New York Times published an editorial supporting Kenyon, following which, McCarthy claimed to have little interest in the case. A Senate subcommittee dismissed the charges against her on July 17.

McCarthy alleged that Kenyon had been a member of 29 Communist front organizations. Two "reliable former members of the Communist party" reportedly told McCarthy that "she had one job and one job only and that was to attach herself to a prominent individual... high in public life and try to influence the writings of that individual," according to a New York Times report from July 28, 1954.

In the wake of her confrontation with McCarthy, however, Kenyon received widespread support from the press and from respected public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt. Although she was vindicated from the accusations, the experience tarnished Kenyon's reputation to the degree that she never received another political appointment.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Kenyon prepared briefs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).[1] She continued to push the ACLU to take a stand against sexist policies and institutions. Kenyon was the sole woman on the board of the ACLU for many years. She worked with African-American activist and attorney, Pauli Murray, on preparing briefs for cases that challenged sex discrimination in the 1940s and 1950s. She joined the pro Equal Rights Amendment forces and also teamed with much younger feminists in the emerging Women's Liberation Movement where she participated in the 1971 Women's Strike for Equality and in the burgeoning movement to legalize abortion.

In 1966, Murray and Dorothy Kenyon successfully argued White v. Crook, a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that women have an equal right to serve on juries.[3] When attorney and future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote her brief for Reed v. Reed—a 1971 Supreme Court case that for the first time extended the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause to women—she added Murray and Kenyon as coauthors in recognition of her debt to their work.[3]

Throughout her adult personal life, Kenyon had lengthy and intense romantic relationships with various men (i.e., Walcott Pitkin, Elihu Root, Jr., and L. V. Pulsifer). However, because she was fiercely independent, she made a conscious decision not to marry.

Kenyon participated in various aspects of President Johnson's War on Poverty and at age 80, she worked tirelessly and almost single-handedly to establish legal services for the poor on the Lower West Side of Manhattan.

When Kenyon was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1969, she concealed the severity of her illness from most people and refused to suspend or even curtail, her legal or political work. She was an active advocate for social justice until her death on February 12, 1972, just before her 84th birthday.[2]

Popular cultureEdit

Kenyon is portrayed by Kathy Bates in the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex, which is about the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.[4]

Further readingEdit

  • Edited by Kerber, Linda K., Skla, Kathryn Kish and Kessler-Harris, Alice (1995). U.S. History As Women's History: New Feminist Essays. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-4495-0.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Strout, Lawrence N. (1999). Covering McCarthyism: How the Christian Science Monitor Handled Joseph R. McCarthy, 1950–1954. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31091-2.
  • Hartmann, Susan M. (1998). The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07464-6.
  • Edited by James, Edward T., James, Janet Wilson and Boyer, Paul (1974). Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-62734-2.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Dorothy Kenyon Papers". Sophia Smith Collection. Smith College. 1999. Retrieved 12 Aug 2011.
  2. ^ a b "Judge Dorothy Kenyon Is Dead; Champion of Social Reform, 83". The New York Times. February 14, 1972.
  3. ^ a b Linda K. Kerber (August 1, 1993). "Judge Ginsburg's Gift". The Washington Post.  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). Archived from the original on October 11, 2013. Retrieved January 14, 2013.
  4. ^ Weinberg, Lindsay (November 13, 2018). "How Beyonce Helped Felicity Jones Play Ruth Bader Ginsburg". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 20, 2018.