Badass From the Past: Dorothy Kenyon

by Emily Montague

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Badass from the Past is a monthly series spotlighting astonishing historical women whose accomplishments have not been given their due. They changed the narrative, and now we're amplifying their stories. For more articles, see the tag #BadassFromThePast.

What do you get when you combine a charismatic socialite, a trailblazing human rights activist, and a top notch lawyer? The answer is Dorothy Kenyon.

Born in 1888 to a wealthy family in New York City, Kenyon was a precocious child with a mind built for asking and answering questions. Her father, William Kenyon, was a successful attorney with progressive views. He supported Dorothy as she pursued her education, putting her through law school at New York University, which was one of a select number of schools offering such degrees to women at the time.

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After graduation, Dorothy traveled to Mexico. A self-described “gadfly” with a large social circle, popularity was natural for her. While abroad, she became exposed to the poverty and class stratification that ran rampant in Central America at the time. This changed the course of her life and inspired Dorothy to pursue a career dedicated to defending human rights and using the law to advocate for the poor and disenfranchised.

In 1957, Dorothy was one of the lawyers representing Gwendolyn Hoyt, a woman convicted of murdering her abusive husband. At the time, only men were required to sit on juries. If a woman wanted to sit on a jury, she had to volunteer to do so via a long and convoluted process that rarely resulted in success.

Kenyon argued that assigning an all-male jury to a female defendant violated Hoyt’s constitutional rights by denying her the right to be judged by a jury of her peers. Hoyt v. Florida made it all the way to the Supreme Court — where the bench was also completely male. The justices ruled against Kenyon’s appeal, arguing that women “were the center of the home and family life,” and that jury duty should therefore not be considered a civic duty for them. Hoyt’s conviction stood.

Though Dorothy was frustrated, the case would inspire future generations of female lawyers, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to fight for equality.

If anything, such a setback only fueled Dorothy’s determination. She was one of the founding board members of the American Civil Liberties Union, the first delegate of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, legal aid to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and vice chair to the New York Commission of the National Public Housing Conference. She advocated for the rights of sex workers, pursuing prosecution of “johns” and pimps rather than those exploited. Dorothy was a proponent of legalizing abortion, an outspoken opponent of segregation, and an avid supporter of the civil rights movement. She opposed the Vietnam War and, during the Red Scare, publicly stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy, telling him to “go to hell.”

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In the realm of her personal life, Dorothy was unconventional as well. She chose to remain unmarried, instead taking various lovers over the course of her life and focusing on her career. She had friends of different races and from all walks of life at a time when a diverse social circle was looked down upon by the white community. Her outspoken support of women’s rights was not merely professional. Dorothy Kenyon demanded equality and respect in all of her personal relationships, earning a reputation for being a strong-willed woman of great integrity. She inspired future generations of women to fight for intersectional rights and actively embraced the title of “feminist” long before the term became part of the social vernacular.

By the time she died in 1972, Dorothy Kenyon had blazed a trail of advocacy and legal precedent for countless admirers. Although her name remains comparatively unknown beside those of Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy was arguably of equal significance. Her legacy lives on as the women’s and civil rights movements continue to forge new paths and pursue the ultimate goal of equality for all.

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Ms. Media