Dorothy Kenyon Cover

Dorothy Kenyon, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s First Case

The years following World War II were a time of conflict about the role and status of women. Women were moving into the workplace in unprecedented numbers. They were also active in the politics of labor, civil rights, essay writing services and peace, and the media had begun suggesting that perhaps “housewife” was not the only acceptable role for women. Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Chase Smith and Claire Booth Luce were widely admired.1

At the same time, however, the late 1940s and early 1950s were marked by an anti-feminist bent that emphasized women’s traditional roles as a bulwark against communism.2 While Americans might admire women such as Mrs. Roosevelt, her model was not what many wanted for America’s wives and daughters.3 Roughly 70 percent of Americans thought families should include three children–and for most women living in a society without a national childcare system, that was not a prescription for mothers’ active involvement in public life.4 A 1945 Gallup poll found Americans uninterested in putting more women into public life, and in the 1950s, women were still voting in fewer numbers than men.5

Joanne Meyerowitz, surveying mass-circulation monthly magazines of the post-war era, found that they “advocated both the domestic and the nondomestic, sometimes in the same sentence.”6 It was a time of cultural transition, and the nation’s attitude toward women was so thoroughly in flux as to border on the schizophrenic. Like all societal change, it was frightening to many, and it was challenged as much as it was welcomed.

Scholars have documented the confusion, but for the most part historians of McCarthyism have not examined the role of Senator Joseph McCarthy in reflecting and adding to the tensions.7 This article examines the way in which the senator’s attack on what he called his “case number one”—the lawyer-activist Dorothy Kenyon—both reflected and contributed to the ongoing struggle about the proper role of women in the 1950s. While historians have written volumes about McCarthy, they have largely ignored the assumptions implicit in the choice of a woman as his first target. Kenyon’s case becomes a lens through which to view an important moment in the construction of gender. It also illuminates the difficulties faced by people named by the senator.

The well-known history of early McCarthyism can be summarized very briefly here. On February 9, 1950, the junior senator from Wisconsin gave a Lincoln’s Day speech to a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia. “I have here in my hand a list of 205,” he announced, “a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in that State Department.” Two weeks later, on the Senate floor, he changed the number first to 57 and then to 81. Viewing McCarthy’s charges as a partisan assault on Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the Truman administration generally, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted to have the Foreign Relations Committee investigate his claims. The Committee created a subcommittee, which opened its hearings on March 8, 1950. The first witness was McCarthy himself. The subject of his “first case,” he said, was “the case of Dorothy Kenyon.”8 He would soon go on to name better known and more highly placed officials, but the first person he attacked at length was a leading women’s rights activist.

McCarthy voiced his charges in the context of Cold War fears. In 1938, popular alarms about Communism, combined with a right-wing reaction against the liberalism of the New Deal, resulted in the creation of a standing House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Congressman Martin Dies, a staunch New Deal opponent who viewed the Roosevelt administration and subversives as synonymous, became its first chairman. HUAC declared that 640 American organizations, 438 newspapers, and 280 labor groups were possible Communist fronts. Among them was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), of which Dorothy Kenyon was an officer. Fears of communism quieted during World War II, when Russia was an American ally, but resurfaced and intensified once the war ended. A series of events in 1948 through early 1950 convinced Americans that there was a “Red menace.” The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb, Chinese Communists took over their country, a Department of Justice employee was arrested during a meeting with a Soviet official and convicted of spying, and a Manhattan Project physicist admitted leaking documents to the Russians. Ex-Communist Party member Whittaker Chambers told HUAC that Alger Hiss, the aristocratic former State Department official who had presided over the first United Nations conference, had belonged to the Party and was a spy. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced that there were at least 540,000 Communists and fellow travelers in the United States.

It was in that fearful atmosphere that McCarthy charged Dorothy Kenyon with subversion.

Dorothy Kenyon
Dorothy Kenyon

Kenyon was a well-known 62-year-old New York City lawyer, a social activist and officer of organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the National Consumers’ League, and the ACLU. She had long been involved in New York city and state politics and had prominently supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in his presidential campaigns.

Kenyon grew up as the privileged daughter of a wealthy attorney and graduated from Smith College. A trip to Mexico in 1913 opened her eyes to poverty and injustice. She committed herself to social justice, and prepared to fight for it by studying law at New York University. An outspoken proponent of gender equality, she worked with women trade unionists and helped found cooperative stores and housing in Manhattan. Over the next decades she battled for fair wages and working conditions, civil liberties, consumer protection, racial equality, and the right of women to serve on juries. The New York Times covered her activities regularly and in 1938 described her as a “widely known lawyer.”9 She was much in demand as a speaker, and traveled around the country lecturing on subjects such as gender equality, constitutional law, Democratic Party candidates, the United Nations, and civil liberties. She was feisty, funny, intelligent, articulate, energetic, and thoroughly dedicated to the fight for women’s rights.

Kenyon had held a substantial number of government positions. She was appointed to the New York City Comptroller’s Advisory Council on Taxes for the Relief of the Unemployed in 1934. A year later, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named her First Deputy Commissioner of Licenses. In 1936, she chaired a variety of municipal committees. She became the U.S. representative to the League of Nations Committee for the Study of the Status of Women throughout the world in 1938. In 1939 LaGuardia appointed her to an interim municipal judgeship (she ran for re-election and lost to the Tammany Hall candidate).10

What brought her to McCarthy’s attention, however, was her three-year stint in 1947-1949 as the United States’ first representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Her stipend had been paid by the State Department. McCarthy charged that she, like others he would name in the weeks and years to come, was a member of subversive organizations, and had been hired only because the State Department was so lax in vetting people that it was permitting loyalty risks to undermine American foreign policy.

* * *

McCarthy began his testimony on the morning of Wednesday, March 8, by claiming that Kenyon received a State Department salary of $12,000 a year (about $126,000 in 2015 dollars) despite being “affiliated” with 28 organizations named as Communist fronts either by the Attorney-General, HUAC, the California Un-American Activities Committee, or some combination. He accused Kenyon of being associated with organizations such as the Political Prisoners Bail Fund Committee, the Consumers’ Union, and the Milk Consumers Protective Committee. One group, the League of Women Shoppers, drew his particular ire—perhaps because of his relationship with Chicago Herald-American publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Senator Joseph McCarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy

McCarthy had called on Hearst for help in the days after his West Virginia speech, when the Republican senator in fact had no list of names for his anti-New Deal crusade. Hearst reporters promptly began digging out files McCarthy could use. Hearst loathed the League of Women Shoppers which, in 1939, had led the Federal Trade Commission to cite Hearst Magazines for carrying fraudulent advertising. The League’s Chicago chapter supported a strike against Hearst newspapers, and the Herald-American as well as Robert McCormick’s Chicago Daily-Tribune responded by calling the League a Communist front.11 From March 1950 on, the Hearst newspapers kept up a drumbeat in support of McCarthy and, not incidentally, against Kenyon.12

McCarthy mentioned none of that but called the League important because, he said, “Mrs. Dean Acheson” was a sponsor of the “subversive” League’s Washington, D.C. branch. “There is no length to which these purveyors of treason will not go to bring into their fold the names of unsuspecting and misguided men and women,” he thundered. “When I cite Mrs. Acheson, I do that to show how successful they have been in their attempts to get fine people on their lists.” In other words, the senator would not at first suggest that the country had deliberately elevated committed subversives to high positions. Instead, he would argue that the alleged subversives were “misguided,” all too easily duped, not to be trusted with responsibility. They were, in fact, either privileged women—there was a strong class component to McCarthy’s charges—or liberal Democrats or, even worse, both.

Only minutes after the day’s hearing concluded, Kenyon and a client were sitting in her office in lower Manhattan when her secretary interrupted. “A reporter from Washington wants to speak to you,” Kenyon remembered the secretary announcing; “says it’s a matter of life and death.” “Tell him my conference is too,” Kenyon responded, but nonetheless took the call. The reporter said that McCarthy had named her, and Kenyon immediately responded, “Tell him he’s an unmitigated liar.” She was prepared to shrug the incident off, but no sooner had she hung up than another reporter was on the line. Next came a call from her friend Senator Herbert Lehman, with whom she had worked in New York politics. Telegraph Democratic Senator Millard E. Tydings, the subcommittee’s chairman, immediately, he advised her, and demand a hearing. Suddenly, Kenyon began to see the “incident” as serious.13

Just as suddenly, her old office building at 50 Broadway was inundated by reporters, radio men, and television cameras. So many electricity-hungry media crowded in that fuses in the inadequately wired building kept blowing out and offices all over it found themselves without electricity. The wire services and afternoon papers rushed to get the story out and, as they did, even more reporters telephoned. Kenyon was up until 1 a.m. taking calls.14 By the time the next morning’s newspapers were printed, the story had made the front pages of publications across the country. An angry and combative Kenyon pulled no punches in reacting to the charges, and that made dramatic headlines. Calling McCarthy “a low-down worm,” she added that he “comes from Wisconsin, sometimes called the state of great winds. He is a wonderful example.”15

Kenyon had followed Lehman’s advice and fired a telegram off to Tydings asking to be heard. The subcommittee voted to hear her on the following Tuesday, March 14.16 That meant she would become the first person to testify in Congress against McCarthy’s accusations.

She had problems preparing. She was not even certain what organizations were at issue. McCarthy had named only 24 organizations, not 28—what were the others? There was also the problem of finding out on which government “subversive” lists the organizations appeared, as she had no immediate access to the lists. And, if she had a relationship with some of the organizations at some point, were they at that time on any of the lists, or had they been put on a list when she was no longer involved with them? There was a bewildering overlap in the organizations’ names, and McCarthy had not been meticulous about getting them right. The American-Russian Institute was never on the Attorney General’s list, for example, but the American Russian Institute of San Francisco was, as was the American Russian Institute for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. When the five-man Tydings subcommittee questioned Kenyon, even the senators had difficulty sorting out the names.17

Whatever affiliation she had with some of the organizations would have been in the 1930s or the early 1940s at latest. Many of them no longer existed, so she could not ask them to check their records. Precisely because she joined so many, the files she kept on organizations became voluminous and had to be pared periodically. That meant she had no record of some relationships—and only five days, in that pre-Internet age, in which to prepare for a congressional hearing.

Colleagues, relatives, and friends rushed in to help. Kenyon’s secretary from the 1930s and early 1940s searched through old files and prepared list after list: of any mention in the files of any of the organizations, of those among them to which Kenyon gave speeches, of others where she appeared on a letterhead, of yet others with which she had only corresponded. A State Department employee who had worked with Kenyon in preparing for the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meetings and had filed reports about them gave her a summary of some twenty different instances from the reports “to show how you demonstrated your views against Communism” during the sessions. A friend who was an editor at the Herald Tribune combed its files to gather material on the organizations.18

Kenyon’s two brothers, both attorneys, understood that she would need legal counsel both before and at the hearing. They hired Theodore Kiendl, whom Kenyon described as “my big, fat, Republican, Wall Street lawyer, who has never joined any organization in his entire life,” and indeed there was no more highly respectable firm than Davis Polk Wardwell Sunderland & Kiendl. Kiendl helped her prepare her testimony, shaping it and persuading her to eliminate some of her less than discreet language.19 Kiendl accompanied her to Washington and lent her side an unshakeable aura of conservative respectability.

Dorothy Kenyon Testifying
Dorothy Kenyon Testifying

The country’s major newspapers came out in Kenyon’s support. The Washington Post reported that only two of the organizations McCarthy named were branded as subversive at the time Kenyon was linked to them. Her name was on the letterhead of one of them, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship mentioned earlier. So were the names of four United States senators or former senators, as well as luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann.20 Like many liberal Americans, Kenyon had been involved with a slew of anti-fascist groups during the 1930s and 1940s, this one among them.

The New York Herald Tribune’s editorial board expressed surprise at the senator’s charges. “Her record of opposition to totalitarian governments and to the Russian Government is so well documented that we can only be amazed that Senator McCarthy could have been so ignorant.”21 A page one article in the Christian Science Monitor noted that Kenyon had not been paid anything like $12,000 by the State Department, but had been remunerated only for the days on which she worked—no more than a few weeks at a time, spread over three years. Far from Kenyon being a supporter of Communism, there was “a wealth of evidence” that she had battled repeatedly with Madame Elizavieta Popova, the Soviet Union’s representative on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Kenyon had frequently enraged Popova by criticizing the status of women and the state of human rights in the U.S.S.R.22

Nonetheless, Kenyon was anxious and defensive. She wrote to her brothers, “I’m going on trial for my life before a Senate Sub-Committee on Tuesday.” She understood that she was being judged guilty by association, but retained her sense of humor. She wrote to her family:
1. I was born in a Republican family and have associated with them all my life. I am therefore a Republican. Guilty.
2. As soon as I got sense I began to associate with the Democrats. I am therefore a Democrat. Guilty.
3. I’ve always been awfully fond of Norman Thomas, even when I didn’t agree with him (which was practically always). I am therefore a Socialist. Guilty.
4. I’ve heard Paul Robeson sing once at a concert (the nearest I ever got to the man). I am therefore a Communist. Guilty.
5. I spent a month once with the Arabs and came home indoctrinated with the refugee’s sufferings. I am therefore anti-Israeli. Guilty.
6. I have consorted all my life with Jews, who (next to the Scotch – me) are among our smartest people. I am therefore pro-Israeli. Guilty.
7. I see a lot of women. I see even more of men (every chance I get). I am therefore a woman or a man. Guilty.23

* * *

The Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building that Kenyon walked into on Tuesday, March 14 was packed to its 300-person capacity, so that latecomers had to stand. The hearing was a sensation even before it began, and at various times senators not on the subcommittee dropped in to see what was going on.24

McCarthy himself was absent. He later told reporters that he had stayed away because he “did not want to be involved in a personal fight with the lady.” He did not mention that, because he was not a member of the subcommittee, he would not have been permitted to question her.25 That negated any opportunity for him to grab headlines—or to reply to anything Kenyon might choose to say about him.

When Senator Tydings gaveled the meeting to order, Kenyon began her statement by apologizing. “When I was informed of the accusations that were made against me before this subcommittee last week, I did explode,” she admitted. “Doubtless my indignation led me to make some impulsive remarks in unparliamentary language.” At the same time, she persisted in thinking she had every right to be angry: “However, nothing can diminish the deep resentment I feel that such outrageous charges should be publicized before this subcommittee and broadcast over the entire Nation without any notice or warning to me.”26 She went on:
My answer to these charges is short, simple, and direct. I am not, and never have been, disloyal. I am not, and never have been, a Communist. I am not, and never have been, a fellow traveler. I am not, and never have been, a supporter of, a member of, or a sympathizer with any organization known to me to be, or suspected by me of being, controlled or dominated by Communists . . . I am, and always have been, unalterably opposed to anyone who advocates the overthrow of our Government by force or violence, or who otherwise engages in subversive activities or entertains subversive ideas.27

After reminding the audience of her family background—one of her ancestors had fought in the American Revolution—and the positions she had held, she addressed the charges of organizational membership one by one.28

There were the organizations with which she had been involved, briefly. They included the League of Women Shoppers, from which she withdrew because she was wary of increasing Communist influence and did not approve of the way the League undertook its investigations of labor disputes. She had found a letterhead listing her as a sponsor of the Conference on Pan-American Democracy, along with people such as Senator Paul A. Douglas, and thought that perhaps she had spoken to the group around 1938. Her sponsorship of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship had been limited to the period in the 1940s when both President Roosevelt and President Truman had sent messages of greetings to its council. Her only relationship with the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom came when, in 1940, she accepted membership on a citizens’ committee to promote free public education. Its letterhead had an “astonishing number of presidents of colleges on it . . . most impressive,” she told the senators, and the organization was not in fact on the Attorney General’s list. She acknowledged membership in the American Lawyers’ Committee on American Relations with Spain, a 1939 group that worked to lift the embargo on Spain, and noted that it too was not on any government list.29

She had no recollection of some of the other organizations, the names of which suggest the plethora of groups that sprang into existence during the 1930s and early 1940s: the Greater New York Emergency Conference on Inalienable Rights, the Advisory Board of Film Audiences for Democracy, the American Committee for Anti-Nazi Literature, the Citizens’ Committee to Aid Striking Seamen.30 But there was one organization she knew very well.

The Congress of American Women was the American affiliate of the Moscow-controlled Women’s International Democratic Federation. That was the organization “over which I have been battling with Mme. Popova of the USSR at the United Nations for all the years since the creation of the Commission on the Status of Women. To charge me with membership in this organization,” she pointed out, “is nothing short of fantastic.”31

Kenyon ended her statement by deploring the damage that had been done to her reputation. “The truth may never catch up with the lie,” she concluded, “but insofar as I can, I desire to regain as much of what I have lost as possible and I have faith that this subcommittee will see that justice is done.” The room erupted in such loud sustained applause that Senator Tydings had to gavel the audience back to order. “The mark of your success,” Alan Reitman, the ACLU’s publicity director, wrote to Kenyon, “was the spontaneous outburst of applause that came from the audience and the personal congratulations extended by the Washington press corps. Both are quite rare in the hurley burley of Washington legislative life.”32

The microphone was then turned over to Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper, the most active Republican member of the committee, whose questioning was extensive and detailed. He asked Kenyon about membership in the Consumers National Federation. As far as she could remember, she had given a speech at one of its meetings but “I washed my hands of it long ago, because I suspected the people.” Hickenlooper turned to her signature on “An Open Letter to the Government and the People of the United States,” a 1939 ad in the New York Times. Kenyon looked at the names of the signatories and observed, “There are an awful lot of bishops on this . . . I see some very respectable lawyers of New York on there.” Hickenlooper informed her that the ad was the doing of the Washington Committee to Lift the Spanish Embargo, which was cited as a Communist front by the California Committee on Un-American Activities. “I certainly had no idea it was Communist, and I am sure those other Republican New York lawyers did not know it either,” she replied. “I think it is very apparent that a number of these organizations have been free with your name, Judge Kenyon,” Hickenlooper remarked. “I think so too, Senator,” she replied. “It is unfortunate to be a liberal and a fighter for causes. It is probably better not to belong to anything.” Hickenlooper eventually concluded with the statement, “I assure you that I haven’t the least evidence, nor do I have any belief, that you are subversive in any way.”33

Tydings took the microphone to ask how Kenyon had come to join organizations. “I was always invited,” she responded. “I got around, I spoke, and then I have always cared very much, as I stated, for the under dog . . . so people came to me and told me about projects.” By the 1930s she was more careful about what she joined. “I worked out a policy that I was cooperative and friendly toward most people, but in respect to Communists, while I would support their civil liberties, my policy was isolationism, and I kept away from them and tried to keep them away from me.”34

The hearing concluded with Kiendl reading a supportive letter from thirteen prominent New York lawyers, including such luminaries as former U.S. Solicitor General and presidential candidate John W. Davis, and Robert P. Patterson, former Secretary of War. Its three paragraphs ended, “It is a matter of public record that long before World War II she warned of the loss of freedom in the totalitarian states. No citizen of New York is a more loyal American.”35

Kenyon had been able to rebut most of McCarthy’s charges, demonstrating that the bulk of them were simply incorrect. McCarthy had taken much of his “evidence” wholesale from “Appendix Nine,” a 1944 multi-volume report of the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Representative Martin Dies. Eleanor Bontecou, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, wrote to Kenyon that the report “was the ‘swan song’ of Dies and J.B. Matthews [HUAC’s chief researcher], and was prepared and sent to the Public Printer in the summer when the Committee members were all absent . . . When the Committee members returned, they were so horrified by it that they recalled some several thousand copies from the printer.” Copies still existed, however, and Bontecou knew that HUAC made its material available to those it chose. “I had occasion to go through it myself the other day,” Bontecou wrote, “and saw your name sprinkled all through it.” Kenyon had attacked the committee in the late 1930s and early 1940s, accusing it of relying on guilt by association and operating “counter to all our democratic notions of fair play and due process” by making accusations without permitting the accused to be heard. Charging that the committee’s witnesses were “exceedingly questionable,” Kenyon told a public meeting in 1939 that one witness “was admittedly guilty of robbery; a second was wanted for murder; several admitted to being employed by strike-breaking organizations; and one was a former officer of a consumer organization rival to the ones under investigation.”36

The FBI also had a file on Kenyon, and McCarthy probably knew about it. He had turned to Hoover as well as Hearst for assistance after the Wheeling speech, and Hoover directed his staff to help. While the Bureau had followed Kenyon’s activities in a desultory manner since the early 1940s, in 1949 it opened a full-scale field investigation of her, in keeping with President Harry S. Truman’s Federal Employee Loyalty Program. The investigation was soon closed by the Loyalty Board and the Justice Department, but the file detailing all her alleged memberships lived on.37

The question of why McCarthy chose Kenyon as his first case still remains. David Oshinsky has noted that “McCarthy did not learn of the woman until the day before the first Tydings session, when her name was plucked from Appendix Nine.”38 It is possible that in his scramble to back up his non-existent list with specific names, McCarthy simply seized upon whatever was at hand. M. Stanton Evans suggests that J. B. Matthews, the “main compiler” of Appendix IX, was able to supply McCarthy with information about Kenyon.39 However, McCarthy also named Ambassador at Large Philip Jessup that day. Jessup was a professor of international law and diplomacy at Columbia University as well as a former U.N. official and, unlike Kenyon, was involved in making American foreign policy: why pick upon Kenyon instead of making Jessup his “first case”? She, after all, was a woman at a time when the words “State Department” evoked the image of men, and her relatively innocuous position had little to do with American policy-making. Landon Storrs has documented the antipathy of the far right, McCarthy included, to the consumer movement and the women who made up a major part of it.40 Kenyon was extremely active in the movement, not only serving as legal counsel to the National Consumers’ League but organizing cooperatives in New York City and encouraging the establishment of cooperatives elsewhere. Hearst’s file on the League of Women Shoppers may have been close at hand when McCarthy organized his testimony.

There is another explanation, however. Kenyon was one of the symbols of the ongoing women’s struggle for equality. In addition to her positions of importance in the AAUW and League of Women Voters, she was active in organizations such as the YWCA, National Association of Women Lawyers, and National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs; and she campaigned to involve more women in public life and for women’s access to birth control. The wide media coverage resulting from her speaking engagements made her one of the public faces of the effort to increase women’s impact on policy-making. She, and the many women with whom she worked, defied an outdated social order. Their demands for fair prices and decent working conditions constituted a collaboration between consumers and labor that challenged corporate control of the marketplace. Women professionals like Kenyon threatened the male dominance of fields such as law and medicine.

McCarthy’s attack reflected a reaction against such activism, viewing women as either pathetic or dangerous. In one stereotype, they were fluffy little things, happily ensconced in their vacuumed homes. At the same time, they were Circe-like in their ability to lure men to destruction. McCarthy would name a number of women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and “Mrs. Dean Acheson,” who were married to influential men, and accuse them of tragically singing a siren call to subversion. Women were too foolish not to be taken in by the false claims of communism, but in their very innocence they led men astray—or alternatively, as with Kenyon and the other professional women McCarthy would name, they knew exactly what they were doing, and that made them a threat to society. The ladies who insisted on pushing themselves into the public sphere were Circes in nylon stockings and fashionable hats. McCarthy seems to have believed that what he saw as their protected lives and privileged status exacerbated their innate inability to understand the dangers of communism and the requirements of national security. They were to be both pitied and feared; and at all costs, they were to be kept away from the world of public policy.

McCarthy can be seen as reflecting the resisters, but he also aided their cause. Kenyon was only the first woman attacked by him. He soon went after Esther Brunauer, a liaison between the State Department and UNESCO. He cited her role in the AAUW which, he alleged, she had involved in “consumer activities,” as well as her activism in the Consumers Union and the League of Women Shoppers. All three organizations, McCarthy said, were “completely communist controlled.” He called Brunauer “one of the most fantastic cases I know of” and chastised her for “Communist-front activities.” Later in 1950, he fought ferociously—and unsuccessfully—against the appointment of Anna Rosenberg as assistant secretary of defense, accusing her of subversion. Two years later McCarthy named Mary Dublin Keyserling, a Commerce Department employee whose husband Leon was President Harry Truman’s chief economic advisor.41

As Washington Post columnist Malvina Lindsay had noted in 1948, women’s policy organizations were coming under increasing attack by right-wing groups. A 1954 article on “The Pink Ladies of the AAUW” would get wide circulation. One of the leading historians of McCarthyism, wondering if there was “a particular ‘McCarthy era’ for women,” commented, “Those who fought to enforce traditional roles for women used redbaiting as a weapon.” The climate of fear—of the linking of feminist activity and subversion—to which McCarthy contributed so much frightened many women into minimizing their public involvement and drove some women’s organizations out of existence.42 Whether or not he initially chose her for this reason, Kenyon became the spearhead of McCarthy’s anti-feminist campaign.

Women were of course not McCarthy’s only target; he impugned men as well as women, and in doing so demonstrated his adherence to traditional gender roles. By suggesting the influence their womenfolk had on them, he implicitly questioned the masculinity of men connected to the State Department. Patriots—like ex-Marine McCarthy—were masculine; State Department employees were demasculinized wimps. The United States, not too many years past an all-encompassing war that put a premium on tough courage and currently beset by the new terrors of the Cold War, was in a period of glorifying strong men. The heroic man personified by Henry Fonda in the 1946 movie “Darling Clementine” or by John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”—or soon to be portrayed by Gary Cooper in “High Noon”—was attractive to women and might be attracted by them, but he never permitted them to lead him astray. That, McCarthy implied, was not true of the men hired by the State Department.

Unlike the Roosevelt and Acheson women, Kenyon had no husband to bewitch. That made her the embodiment of the belittling word “spinster,” which was how many of the news reports described her. “Spinster” implied both unattractiveness—“couldn’t catch a man”—and, in the context of the drive for gender equality, a battleax. In either version, a spinster was the subject of scorn, fear and, perhaps, pity.

In accusing Kenyon, then, McCarthy was picking on what must have seemed to be an easy right-wing target: the woman who defied respectability by refusing to stay at home. What may have been equally important in his eyes, however, was her connection to Eleanor Roosevelt. Kenyon was convinced that McCarthy was attacking her as a way to impugn Mrs. Roosevelt, and that McCarthy’s crusade against the New Deal and the Democratic Party was designed in part as a way to revive the flagging fortunes of the Republican Party. By 1950, Kenyon knew, Eleanor Roosevelt had become a prime symbol both of the New Deal and of internationalism.43 Kenyon’s analysis gains credence from the attack McCarthy made on her before a Senate subcommittee in July, 1954. He had been wrong about Kenyon, McCarthy said. She was not a member of 28 communist-front organizations, but of 52. Moreover, he had the word of “two reliable former members of the Communist party” that she was a party member. “She had only one job—to attach herself to an individual high in public life and to influence the writings of that individual.” He later told a reporter that the “individual” was Eleanor Roosevelt.44 In fact, while Kenyon and Mrs. Roosevelt had crossed paths in their work for organizations such as the New York State League of Women Voters and the National Consumers’ League, they were occasional colleagues rather than friends.

What Kenyon did in her testimony was challenge the updated Circe myth as well as the two stereotypes of woman as giddy little thing and as pathetic aging spinster. She presented herself as an intelligent, accomplished woman, indignant but poised, who knew exactly what she was doing almost all of the time but was quite willing to admit that she was humanly fallible. Yes, her performance seemed to say, she had let her name be used too easily—but then, she was a professional woman busy in so many areas that an occasional stumble did no more than demonstrate the impressive breadth of her endeavors. She had flown into a fury at McCarthy’s charges—but she could face rows of public officials and cameras and scornfully articulate the points on which a U.S. senator had been woefully incorrect. The lawyers’ letter introduced as a final note at the hearing seemed to put the finishing touch to the portrait she drew. There was a woman professional who was accepted as an equal by important men.

It was therefore not surprising that mainstream media reaction to Kenyon’s testimony was largely positive, and the country’s major newspapers put their stories about it on the front page. The New York Times emphasized both McCarthy’s absence from the session and Hickenlooper’s statement that she was not a subversive. The Washington Post editorial waxed both poetic and chauvinistic, declaring that “Boadicea came to town yesterday in the person of Miss Dorothy Kenyon . . . when she alighted from her chariot at Capitol Hill, her traducer was not around . . . In truth Case No. 1 turned out to be not only an outraged and innocent American, but also a woman of spirit. Even a marine of McCarthy’s background would have quailed at the sight, for, as the poet truly says, the female is the more deadly of the species, anyway, and a veritable hornet’s nest when impugned.” A Herald Tribune editorial opined that McCarthy “caught a Tartar in Miss Dorothy Kenyon, whose description of the Senator as an ‘unmitigated liar’ has not so far been widely challenged.”45 Cartoonist Herblock published a drawing of McCarthy peering out from under coats hanging in a cloakroom, asking a passer-by, “Pst—Is She Gone Yet?” Time magazine, calling McCarthy “loud-mouthed” and “irresponsible,” reported that Kenyon “seemed delighted at the chance to appear” and “disproved his accusations . . . thoroughly.”46

Other coverage, reflecting the societal schism about the dangers of domestic communism, painted a different picture. The Chicago Daily Tribune said that the “shrill” Kenyon had been applauded by “a partisan audience.” The Texas News concluded that “it is pretty plain that she does belong to more than one” Communist-front organization. While that “does not add up to proof that Miss Kenyon is a Red,” she was clearly “a pink liberal” who had done as much as Eleanor Roosevelt “to forward the infiltration of American government and intellectual life with disloyal and traitorous people.” The New York Journal American agreed that she was not a member of the Communist party but called her “demonstrably a part of the Communist movement, whether she realized it or not.”47

Perhaps the most potent attack came from widely syndicated Hearst columnist George E. Sokolsky, who relied on the authority of “the proved sociological postulate” that “where there is a community of kind, there is likely to be an association of those who have similar tastes.” Sokolsky briefly examined sixteen of the organizations named by McCarthy, finding their purposes questionable, and noted that McCarthy had tied Kenyon to each. That didn’t “necessarily” prove that Kenyon was a Communist, but her “constant association . . . does . . . open to question her judgment and her associations.” Sokolsky would write in a later column that Kenyon “reminds one of Eleanor Roosevelt before her voice was cured of its falsetto.”48

Eleanor Roosevelt herself joined the discussion in one of her syndicated “My Day” columns. “The only possible criticism of Dorothy Kenyon I can think of would be that she hoped at times to accomplish more good things than I believe can be achieved all at one stroke,” she wrote, opining that “If all of the Honorable Senator’s ‘subversives’ are as subversive as Miss Kenyon, I think the State Department is entirely safe and the nation will continue on an even keel.” Roosevelt told reporters that the accusations were “irresponsible charges by association” and “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” “Have we reached the point in this country where we must be afraid to join an organization for fear some of its members may have been or might be now Communists?” she asked rhetorically.49

Shortly after Kenyon’s testimony, the International Council of Women asked her to join one of its committees, and Oberlin College announced that it would present her with an honorary degree. At the same time, however, there was “prolonged cheering” when Republican senator H. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire told the Milwaukee Executives Club and the media that “Judge Kenyon is a woman who joined 28 subversive organizations . . . whether she’s a Communist or not, I don’t know, but I don’t want anyone that fudge-mixed representing me.” An embarrassed organizer for the National Association of Women Lawyers’ group in McPherson, Kansas wrote to Kenyon that the group voted to “postpone” a speech Kenyon was due to give there. Kenyon, nothing daunted, replied, “Right now is the acid test, and if they don’t want to hear me speak now they will never hear me speak. Please tell them it is not a matter of postponement at all.”50

* * *

On July 17, 1950, the Tydings subcommittee issued its report on McCarthy’s charges against Kenyon and others he named. Only the three Democrats on the subcommittee signed it; the two Republican members did not. McCarthy, the Democratic majority found, had perpetrated a “fraud and a hoax . . . on the Senate,” and it exonerated all of those he had accused. It cleared Kenyon of subversion but convicted her of naiveté. “The evidence before this subcommittee fails to establish that Dorothy Kenyon is a Communist or an otherwise disloyal person,” it stated. “It is apparent that she was less judicious in joining certain organizations during the late 1930’s and 1940’s. Significantly, however, though her name has been associated in one manner or another with 20 different cited organizations, she was found to be connected on but one occasion with an organization after it was cited as subversive. Moreover, many of the alleged associations were denied or explained. In other cases, she had a great deal of distinguished company.” Referring to Kenyon, the report went on to express the subcommittee’s regret that “so many who profess to be informed about communism fail to understand or, when it serves them, deliberately ignore the true nature of the Communist-front movement.” It added that “the number of admitted affiliations suggests a high degree of naïveté and perhaps gullibility” on Kenyon’s part, but the evidence “fails to establish” that she is a Communist or otherwise disloyal.51

Its publication did not end the “incident” for Kenyon. Reflecting on the experience, she decided “there was a wild grotesquerie about it all to which a Swift or Cervantes alone could have done justice.” It was, she thought, no less than a “holocaust.” Kiendl was quite certain that her telephone was being tapped, and Kenyon assumed that it was the doing of the government. She saw herself as someone who had innocently joined many organizations, the overwhelming majority of which were “well known and highly reputable,” yet “for this I have now been called a traitor, pilloried, cross-examined, spied on, the recipient of anonymous letters, my professional reputation, my brains and character, all cast in doubt.” She felt that “my whole life had changed in those few hours,” as everyone caught up in the McCarthy charges “got smeared a bright red or became, at the very least, a permanent ‘figure of controversy.’” She was nonetheless lucky, she thought, because as the first person to defend herself, she had not been able to see what would become the widespread horrors of McCarthyism and so was relatively unafraid. She was “even luckier in that my job, and therefore my bread and butter, were not at stake.”52

Whether they were or not is unclear. A single practitioner, Kenyon depended on her clients for her livelihood. Her sister-in-law claimed that Kenyon’s clients fell away, while Kenyon herself reportedly said that she lost no clients and that the demand for her speeches actually improved.53 That may have been bravado, however, for Kenyon soon gave up her lower Manhattan office for the room in her apartment that her letterhead would bravely proclaim to be her “midtown office.” She worried about money for the rest of her life.

The woman who had been appointed to so many governmental bodies, and who had joyfully accepted any offered to her, was never named to another. As journalist Doris Fleeson wrote the day of Kenyon’s testimony, “It was noticeable that the cameras which whirred assiduously during the high accusatory spots of Senator McCarthy’s testimony were often quiet during the detailed careful Kenyon rebuttal . . . it is doubtful also that Miss Kenyon’s impressive performance soon will inspire a President to appoint her again to a Government position.” According to Kenyon’s FBI file, she was under consideration for a federal position when President Lyndon Johnson was in office. The FBI resurrected all the old charges in its background report to the White House, and the appointment fell through.54

Exhausted and apparently poorer, Kenyon nonetheless went on the attack. In April she told a Brooklyn audience that “the irresponsible leveling of charges which cannot be supported by facts and the damage they do to an individual are robbing us” of free speech. “What kind of world is this?” she asked rhetorically. “Is this America or does it sound like Hitler or Stalin?” and she cautioned, “we must not become an image of the thing we fear.”55 In June she spoke at a ceremony honoring the graduates of New York University’s woman’s law class, warning them that “in the hysteria over communism in the United States we have stooped to the use of the very methods we deplore.”56 In December, addressing the Rhode Island branch of the AAUW, she lamented that “we don’t talk as freely as we used to, we are thinking in terms of repression.”57 Speaking about “McCarthyism and Its Effects on the United States,” she told the Hartford YWCA that Congressional hearing rooms “look like courts” but that what went on there was a “complete reversal of our Anglo-Saxon judicial principles.” Deploring an “atmosphere of fear,” she presented her credo: “What we need to do is to be ourselves, to say what we think, and say and say it, and the truth shall set us free.”58

She kept at the activities that mattered to her and branched out to even more. It was Kenyon who, along with Pauli Murray, convinced the ACLU in the 1960s that the road to women’s equality lay through litigation based on the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.59 She thereby prepared the way for the establishment of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Project’s first director, paid homage to Kenyon by putting her name on the first gender equality brief Ginsburg prepared for the U.S. Supreme Court, even though Kenyon was not at all involved in the case.60 Kenyon threw herself into New York reform Democratic politics, working for the nomination and election of local officials and eventually helping her downtown Manhattan neighborhood reformers take over the local Democratic club.61 She wrote briefs for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as the ACLU.62 In 1968, a sprightly 80 years old, she flew to Memphis to march in solidarity with striking sanitation workers.63 The same year, aware that low income residents of Manhattan’s West Side had inadequate access to lawyers, she created a legal services organization.64 In 1970, the women’s liberation movement held a march down Fifth Avenue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment. Kenyon, 82 years old and suffering from the stomach cancer that would kill her, refused to ride in the car provided for her. She would march for what she believed in; it was what she did. Later that day she joined the other women in picketing the Statue of Liberty, and then she went on to appear on a television program.65

Kenyon may not have gotten any other government appointments, but she did have the last word. In 1968, friends organized a huge 80th birthday celebration for her in Central Park’s elegant Tavern on the Green. By then, Joseph McCarthy was dead and the women’s liberation movement had been born. Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Paul Douglas were among the co-chairs for the Kenyon celebration, which was attended by more than 350 people. Kenyon reminisced at it about various events in her life. Speaking of McCarthy, she said simply, “He called me a Communist, and I called him a liar. He was wrong, and I was right.”66