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   Date: 3/24/10 Bookmark and Share

Dorothy Kenyon, Smith 1908, laywer, civil rights advocate, feminist

“Let us all learn to treat people everywhere like human beings, without distinction as to color, race, creed, or sex, and the problems will melt away. One world, one people—that is what we want.”—Dorothy Kenyon, in a speech to the UN Commission on the Status of Women

Dorothy Kenyon was a champion of civil liberties and human rights. Her decision to become a lawyer in a time when few women were admitted to law school was spurred by the terrible poverty she saw on a trip to Mexico a few years after her graduation from Smith in 1908. By 1914, she had earned her law degree from New York University, and by 1917 had gained admittance to the New York State bar. She established a private practice focusing on women’s rights, labor rights, and civil rights, while becoming a founding board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and serving as a member of many other prominent liberal organizations, such as the YWCA and the American Labor Party.

Kenyon, noticed by the New York City government, was appointed to several municipal positions in the middle part of her career, which enabled her to improve housing, tax relief for the unemployed, and other issues. She was eventually appointed judge on the New York City Municipal Court.

With her appointments as a U.S. representative to the League of Nations Committee for the Study of the Status of Women, and later as U.S. delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Kenyon emerged on the international stage. Kenyon debated the relative statuses of women in the U.S. and the Soviet Union with her Soviet counterpart on the Commission. Despite that public disagreement, U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy named Kenyon a Communist sympathizer and informant in 1950. McCarthy and the FBI found Kenyon guilty of connections with subversive organizations such as the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, the Union for Democratic Action, and the American Labor Party.

Kenyon was not deterred. Upon hearing of McCarthy’s accusations, Kenyon said, publicly, that McCarthy was 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.” Despite prominent support from Eleanor Roosevelt, Kenyon went so far as to hire a “Wall Street Republican” as her legal counsel for the loyalty hearings. Perhaps the tactic helped: McCarthy’s investigation concluded that Kenyon had simply displayed “naiveté and gullibility” in her involvement in liberal organizations. She was not convicted.

After her brush with McCarthy’s witch-hunt, Kenyon continued her fight for civil and human rights on state and national levels. She remained active in the ACLU, helped write legal briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and set up legal counseling for the poor of New York’s Lower West Side. Kenyon died in 1972 at age 84.


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