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Dorothy Kenyon papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00085

Scope and Contents

The Dorothy Kenyon Papers consist of 29 linear feet of material dating from 1850-1998. The bulk of the papers date from 1888-1972 and focus on Kenyon's personal, professional, and political activities. Types of material include personal records and memorabilia; newspaper clippings; interview transcripts; financial records; family correspondence and memorabilia; personal and professional correspondence; published and unpublished writings; speeches; legal documents; organizational records; research files; photographs; miscellaneous notes, lists, and printed matter; and audiotapes of interviews and speeches.

Major subjects reflected in the collection include the status and role of women in the U.S. and internationally, U.S. and international law, domestic and foreign policy, abortion rights, civil rights, civil liberties, consumer rights, the cooperative movement, Democratic Party politics, Senator Joseph McCarthy, U.S. anti-communism, the War on Poverty in New York City, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Women's Liberation movement. Organizations represented include the ACLU, NAACP, Americans for Democratic Action, various United Nations and League of Nations Committees, Mobilization for Youth, the Citizens Union of NYC, the American Labor Party, and others. The papers offer insight into the life of a pioneering woman lawyer, judge, and political figure. Kenyon was among the first women to gain admittance to the New York City Bar Association. She was active on local, state, national, and international levels in the fight for human rights, women's rights, and civil rights. In addition to illuminating Kenyon's own work for her causes, the papers document 20th century social reform movements in general. Race relations, urban reform policies, court reform, public housing, community development programs, and political activities from the 1890s to the 1970s are some of the many topics addressed in the papers.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1850 - 1998


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to unpublished works of Dorothy Kenyon. Copyright to materials created by others may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission must be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Biographical / Historical

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.


34.626 linear feet (75 containers)


Lawyer, feminist, judge, and political activist. The Kenyon collection illuminates the continuity of social activism around such issues as race, class, poverty, and gender from the 1930s-60s. Topics reflected include worldwide suffrage; abortion rights; minority legal rights; the Equal Rights Amendment; and civil rights. Materials include writings, speeches, organizational records, photographs, memorabilia, and audio tapes of interviews and speeches. Significant correspondents include: Bella Abzug, Florence Allen, Roger Baldwin, Mary Dewson, India Edwards, Felix Frankfurter, Betty Friedan, Hubert Humphrey, Fiorello LaGuardia, Frieda Miller, Constance Baker Motley, Pauli Murray, Edmund Muskie, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Harriet Pilpel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Anna Lord Strauss, and Harry Truman.


This collection is organized into nine series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Family
  3. III. Correspondence
  4. IV. Speeches and Writings
  5. V. Legal Practice
  6. VI. Activities and Organization
  7. VII. Research Files
  8. VIII. Photographs
  9. IX. Audiovisual Material

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Dorothy Kenyon promised her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1951. Kenyon's brother and sister-in-law W. Houston Kenyon and Mildred Adams Kenyon donated the bulk of the papers in 1980. In 1998 and 2000 Louise Wilby Knight (the granddaughter of Kenyon's first cousin Katherine Curtis Wilby) donated a small number of additional items including letters and audio-tapes.

FBI files were added in 2002 from a FOIA request, most likely by the Sophia Smith Collection.

Existence and Location of Copies

The Kenyon Papers are also available on microfilm and a copy is included in the collection.


For additional biographical information see:
  • Susan M. Hartmann, The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment (Yale, 1998)
  • Linda Kerber, No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (Hill and Wang, 1998)
  • Notable American Women, 1607-1950; a biographical dictionary (Harvard University Press, 1971)

Processing Information

Processed by Kate Weigand, 1999.

Dorothy Kenyon papers
Finding Aid
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Kate Weigand
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss35 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:17-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2022-03-03: Integrated description of oversized materials

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063