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Dorothy Kenyon: Agent of Social Change (November 1999)

Thanks to funding from the NEH and Smith College President Ruth Simmons, the processing of the papers of Smith alumna and New York lawyer/judge/activist Dorothy Kenyon (1888-1972) is now nearly complete. Kenyon's papers--one of the eight collections represented in the Sophia Smith Collection's "Agents of Social Change" grant project--constitute an extremely rich source for researchers interested in a whole range of twentieth century social justice movements.

Born in New York City in 1888, Kenyon graduated from Smith College in 1908. After a period as a self-described "social butterfly," Kenyon entered New York University Law School where she transformed herself into a social activist and earned her J.D. in 1917. Kenyon reached national prominence in the 1930s and 40s as the U.S. representative to the League of Nations Committee for the Study of the Status of Women and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Due to these governmental appointments, and to her large political and social networks, Kenyon's papers contain abundant information about local and national Democratic politics in the U.S. domestic and international policy between the 1920s and the 1950s.

In addition to traditional politics, however, Kenyon's papers also document a much wider spectrum of political activity. As one of Joseph McCarthy's first targets in 1950, Dorothy Kenyon experienced anti-communism first hand. Although her public reputation suffered in the wake of McCarthy's charges, her unabashed condemnation of the Senator and his tactics undoubtedly contributed to his downfall. As a feminist whose activism spanned from the suffrage movement to women's liberation, a lifelong advocate of cooperatives, a nationally known civil libertarian, a civil rights activist, a fighter at the forefront of the War on Poverty in New York City, and a longstanding critic of anti-communism, Kenyon served as an important link between the progressive movements of the 1930s and those of the 1960s.

Kenyon's papers -- promised to the Sophia Smith Collection founder Margaret Grierson by Dorothy Kenyon in 1951 and donated after her death in 1972 -- span the years 1850-1972. They consist of biographical material; correspondence; memorabilia; published and unpublished writings; and documents relating Kenyon's participation in a vast number of organizations, including the United Nations, the ACLU, and Mobilization for Youth, among many others. Despite their partially processed state, Kenyon's papers have contributed significantly to two recent books: Susan M. Hartmann's The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment (Yale 1998) and Linda Kerber's No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (Hill and Wang, 1998). Now that they are more "user-friendly" the records of Dorothy Kenyon's life and work will undoubtedly receive much more exposure and make new contributions to our understanding of gender, law, and politics as they evolved over the course of the twentieth century.

-Kate Weigand

For more on Dorothy Kenyon, see the Agents of Social Change online exhibit. and View finding aid for the Dorothy Kenyon Papers.


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