Kenyon, Dorothy, 1888-1972

Alternative names
Birth 1888-02-17
Death 1972-02-12

Biographical notes:

Lawyer; Judge; activist. Municipal Court Justice, New York City, 1930's; president of the Consumers' League of New York; appointed to a League of Nations Commission to Study the Legal Status of Women, 1938; U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, 1947-50. Charged by Senator Joseph McCarthy with membership in communist organizations and was the first person to appear before Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee, 1950. Was on National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union, 1930-1972; prepared legal briefs for civil rights cases for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund and A.C.L.U. in the 1960s. Was active in civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, and women's liberation movements; and in New York City politics and War on Poverty community projects. Helped to establish Mobilization for Youth legal services for the poor on the Lower West Side, 1968.

From the description of Dorothy Kenyon papers, 1850-1998 (bulk 1888-1971). (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 46440080

Dorothy Kenyon speaking before the PTA at PS 33 in New York City, 1970

Dorothy Kenyon, born in New York City on February 17, 1888, was the oldest of three children and the only daughter of prominent patent attorney William H. Kenyon, and Cincinnati, Ohio native Maria Wellington (Stanwood) Kenyon. Raised in the privileged environments of Manhattan's Upper West Side and her family's summer home in Lakeville, Connecticut, Kenyon excelled at the progressive Horace Mann High School from which she in graduated 1904. At Smith College she majored in economics and history and participated in numerous activities ranging from music to championship tennis and hockey. Kenyon was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year and graduated with an A.B. from Smith in 1908.

Though she often claimed that she had made the decision to become a lawyer when she was still a small child, Kenyon also conceded that she had "misspent" the years from 1908-1913 as a "social butterfly." It was only after a year in Mexico where she observed poverty and injustice at close range that Kenyon acquired her "slant to the left," decided upon her vocation, and transformed herself into a social activist. Kenyon entered New York University Law School at the age of 26 in 1914 and obtained her J.D. degree and admission to the New York Bar in 1917.

Unlike her two brothers Theodore Stanwood Kenyon and William Houston Kenyon Jr. who also became lawyers, Kenyon had a highly developed sense of public obligation kept her from joining the family law firm. Instead she began her legal career in 1917 with a brief stint as a law clerk in the New York firm Gwinn and Deming. Later that year she established herself more firmly in the legal profession through her work for the U.S. government in Washington, D.C., researching wartime labor patterns and collecting economic data for the 1919 Peace Conference. At the end of 1919 she returned to New York City and joined the firm Pitkin, Rosenson and Henderson. In 1925--the year she finally moved out of her father's house and into her own apartment--Kenyon also opened her own law office. In 1930 she joined forces with another woman lawyer, Dorothy Straus. They practiced law as Straus and Kenyon until 1939.

In keeping with her decision to work for social justice, Kenyon devoted a great deal of her energy in the 1930s and throughout her career to a variety of liberal and progressive causes, including the New Deal, women's rights, the labor movement, and consumer cooperatives. She served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union from its inception in 1930. By the mid-1930s the combination of her legal credentials and her commitment to social justice won her various public appointments. In 1934, for example, she was appointed a member of the New York City Comptroller's Advisory 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 patronized them. In 1936 she became the First Deputy Commissioner of Licenses in New York City and in 1937 she served as Vice Chair of the New York Commission of the National Public Housing Conference. Kenyon was a charismatic speaker and she regularly traveled around the U.S. lecturing about civil liberties, the law, women's equality, and numerous other subjects. She often reworked her addresses and published them as articles. Kenyon's writings appeared frequently in a variety of publications ranging from the Smith College Alumnae Quarterl, to American Girl Magazine to the Encyclopedia Britannica. At the end of 1939 Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Kenyon to fill a vacancy on the Municipal Court bench, a position in which she served until November of 1940. Despite her short tenure on the bench, Kenyon was known to many as "Judge Kenyon" for the rest of her life.

Dorothy Kenyon identified herself as a feminist and, though she played only a minor role in the suffrage movement, she served as an officer in several women's organizations that aimed to improve women's status in the 1920s and 1930s. Although she had lengthy and intense romantic relationships with various men (including Walcott Pitkin, Elihu Root Jr., and L.V. Pulsifer) over the course of her adult life, Kenyon was fiercely independent and made a conscious decision not to marry. Throughout her career she devoted special attention to the issues of jury service for women, equality in marriage, the legalization of birth control, and improved educational and economic opportunities for women. Kenyon gained national prominence as a feminist activist in 1938 when she was named the U.S. representative to the League of Nations Committee for the Study of the Status of Women, a group of seven lawyers charged with studying women's legal status internationally. World War II interrupted the committee's work and it was never completed. Kenyon resumed her commitment to improving women's status around the world through her work as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women from 1946-1950.

Already well-known in academic, legal, and political circles, in 1950 Dorothy Kenyon made national news when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy charged her with membership in numerous Communist-front organizations. Kenyon responded aggressively to McCarthy's accusations by declaring: "He's a lowdown worm and although it ought to be beneath my dignity to answer him, I'm mad enough to say that he's a liar and he can go to hell." As the first person to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that investigated McCarthy's charges she admitted that she had lent her name to various liberal and anti-fascist organizations, but forcefully denied that she had ever been a member or supporter of the Communist Party.

In the wake of her confrontation with McCarthy, Kenyon received widespread support from the liberal press and from respected public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt. Her fearless defiance and unabashed condemnation of the Senator and his tactics undoubtedly contributed to his eventual downfall. Despite such vindication, the experience tarnished Kenyon's reputation to the degree that she never received another political appointment. Nevertheless, she sustained her busy law practice and, as progressive social movements resurged in the 1960s, escalated her already intense involvement in both national and local politics.

As a longtime supporter of civil rights, Kenyon prepared briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU, fought segregation in the New York City schools, and participated in numerous civil rights marches. She 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. She continued her feminist activism throughout the 1950s and 1960s by pushing the ACLU to take a stand against sexist policies and institutions and, once they had done so, working with African-American activist and attorney Pauli Murray on preparing briefs for cases that challenged sex discrimination. In the last few years of her life Kenyon, along with many women of her generation who had opposed the ERA because of the negative implications they believed it held for working-class women, joined the pro-ERA forces. She also joined 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 addition to her numerous professional and political commitments, Dorothy Kenyon also maintained a busy social life. She had friends of all ages in New York and around the world, but her closest personal relationships centered around "Barn House," a rustic estate jointly owned by a small group of East coast liberal intellectuals in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard. Kenyon joined Gertrude and Stanley King, Natalie and Adam Haskell, and Wolcott Pitkin in founding Barn House in 1919. Over the years Barn House members and guests included such notables as Crystal and Max Eastman, Roger and Evelyn Baldwin, Walter Lippman, Felix Frankfurter, and Sylvia Plath, among many others. In order to take advantage of its relaxing yet intellectually stimulating environment, Kenyon participated actively in administering Barn House and spent time there every summer from 1919 until 1971.

When Dorothy Kenyon was diagnosed with 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. Active and articulate as an advocate for social justice until the very end, Dorothy Kenyon died one week before her 84th birthday on February 11, 1972.

For for additional biographical information, see Bibliography .

From the guide to the Dorothy Kenyon Papers MS 85., 1850 - 1998, (Sophia Smith Collection)


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  • Women lawyers--History
  • Women--Legal status, laws, etc.--History--20th century--Sources
  • Feminists--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Feminists--History--20th century
  • Consumer cooperatives--History
  • Civil rights movements--History--20th century
  • Women--Legal status, laws, etc.--History--20th century
  • Abortion--Law and legislation--History
  • Equal rights amendments--United States--History--Sources
  • Women judges--United States--History--Sources
  • Anti-communist movements--United States--History--Sources
  • Anti-communist movements--History
  • Women (International law)--History--20th century
  • Women--Suffrage
  • Women (International law)--History--Sources
  • Abortion--Law and legislation--United States--History--Sources
  • Women judges--History
  • Civil rights--United States--History--20th century--Sources
  • Equal rights amendments
  • Consumer cooperatives--United States--History--Sources


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  • New York (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • Chilmark (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • New York (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • Chilmark (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)