(WOMENSENEWS)–“Women’s Strike Day” — August 26, 1970 — marked the 50th anniversary of winning female suffrage and announced a new wave of feminist activism. Tens of thousands demonstrated in major American cities and in Paris, a small group near the Arc de Triophe held a banner that read, “More Unknown Than the Unknown Soldier: His Wife.” In New York City, marchers defied mounted police who had been instructed to keep them on the sidewalks. Arm-linked in the first line that defiantly “liberated” all of Fifth Avenue was an octogenarian named Dorothy Kenyon who had declined organizers’ offer of a parade car for “first wave” veterans. Judge Kenyon preferred to walk.
Kenyon had been part of the “experiment” of higher education for privileged women, graduating from Smith College in 1908. Contrary to class expectations however, she did not become an excellent “helpmeet” to men but a lifelong, controversial fighter for social justice. Law degree in hand by 1917, she worked not only for women’s rights–supporting the birth control movement, opposing criminal prosecution for prostitutes–but for workers’ rights and international peace. Her tenure as a municipal justice was brief–1939-40–but she was thereafter always known as “Judge.” She survived accusations of Communist sympathies in the 1950’s and was still standing and marching with protestors against the Vietnam War and with sanitation workers in Memphis after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. When feminism’s “second wave” caught up with her, she was fighting for abortion rights and urging passage of the Equal Rights Amendment because, as she said at the march that day in 1970, “I’m afraid the Supreme Court is going in a backward wave for the next 20 years.” She did not live to see how right she was nor to see August 26th become “Women’s Equality Day.” Judge Kenyon died in 1972.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”