born february 18, 1874 quincy, massachusetts
died october 21, 1962 castine, maine
social reformer, democratic party leader, promoter of women in government
"Molly Dewson arrived in Washington to take over as head of the country's Democratic women and to inaugurate a new deal of her own—a new deal for women in politics."
from ladies of courage
During the 1930s, Molly Dewson became America's first woman to take the lead role in a political organization. She was the driving force behind securing prominent positions for women in the Roosevelt administration. From 1932 until 1937 Dewson was director of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee. Director of the Women's Division was a full-time job on the staff of the national committee, and whoever held the position was the most powerful woman in the national party organization. During the 1936 presidential election campaign, Dewson directed the efforts of some eighty thousand women who served as a nationwide network recruiting the female vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) reelection. Through her efforts, women voters became an important segment of the newly created Democratic Coalition. This coalition would influence U.S. political elections for decades to come.
Dewson held no desire for her own political gain but focused on promoting social reform and the participation of women in government. She preferred working quietly, but
vigorously, behind the scenes rather than in the limelight. Instead of promoting women for political office, Dewson concentrated on getting women appointed to prominent government positions. She introduced the idea that women belonged at the highest governmental levels and moved the focus of women's issues from the state and local levels to the national level.
In the 1987 biography of Molly Dewson, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics, author Susan Ware describes Dewson's ability to work effectively in the predominantly male world of politics: "She had a down-to-earth practical manner that male politicians liked. Unlike many political greenhorns [one who is inexperienced], she was not afraid to compromise; if a public fight seemed counterproductive, she found ways to achieve her goals behind the scenes." Lorena Hickok (1893–1968; see entry) and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962; see entry) describe Dewson similarly in Ladies of Courage: "She has never been, to use a Dewson adjective, a 'buttery-uppery' person. Her forthright manner…reassured the men. They thought they understood her. Few of them ever realized how well she understood them."
Molly was born Mary Williams Dewson, the last of six children in a Massachusetts family that traced its American roots back to 1637. Her father, Edward Henry Dewson, was a Boston leather merchant. Her mother, Elizabeth Weld, focused on the home, family, and religion. The family was close, gathering daily to read aloud, often from the Bible. Her parents supported her desire to go to college even though higher education was an uncommon opportunity for women at that time. Molly attended Wellesley College, graduating in 1897. In college, she demonstrated leadership qualities and was elected senior class president.
Following graduation, Dewson worked with several organizations. She first found employment as a research assistant for the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Boston. This organization was dedicated to helping women gain educational and vocational advancement. Dewson explored various topics concerning women workers in industry. The work introduced her to poverty and women's issues of the day. She had never seen women and children laboring long hours in unsafe, dirty factory conditions or people, who were either out of work or making poverty wages, living in crowded slums. In 1900 Dewson took a job as head of the parole department for delinquent girls at the Massachusetts State Industrial School for Girls at Lancaster. There she met her life partner of fifty-two years, Polly Porter. They moved to central Massachusetts in 1912 to operate an experimental dairy farm.
Also in 1912 Dewson became executive secretary for the Massachusetts Commission on the Minimum Wage. Politically Dewson considered herself a progressive. Progressives looked to the federal government to help solve the pressing social problems developing in modern industrial America. During this period of progressive politics, key issues for women were minimum wage guarantees and women's suffrage (right to vote). Dewson successfully fought for the nation's first minimum wage law for women workers, a major advance in social legislation. Eight other states passed similar laws in 1913, and by 1923 fourteen states had such laws. During the 1910s Dewson participated in the women's suffrage campaign. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 when the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.
An energetic and involved life
During World War I (1914–18), Dewson and Porter joined the American Red Cross in Europe and fearlessly traveled to France with other social workers. There Dewson became a zone chief working with immigrant refugees. Upon returning from the war, Dewson joined the National Consumers' League in New York City. She served as research secretary and worked on labor legislation from 1919 to 1924. The National Consumers' League attempted to use consumer pressure to change factory conditions by urging people not to buy products made in unsafe factories. In 1924, at the age of fifty, Dewson resigned from the league, with thoughts of settling into life in New York City's Greenwich Village. Dewson and Porter also spent time at Porter's large summer home in Castine, Maine. However, unable to contain her energy and curiosity within a retired lifestyle, Dewson soon took on the duties of civic secretary for the Women's City Club of New York, a social reform group. During 1924 and 1925 she helped develop a legislative program to address women's issues. Dewson next became president of the New York Consumers' League, a position she held until 1931.
Dewson and the New Deal
While serving on the city club and the New York Consumers' League, Dewson made many new friends including Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1928 Eleanor recruited Dewson to help with the women's campaign in the Midwest supporting the Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944). Dewson's success in resolving some complex situations led Eleanor to recruit Dewson once again in 1932 to assist with the presidential campaign of Eleanor's husband Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry). Dewson developed key campaign literature for Roosevelt: distinctive, brightly-colored, one-page fact sheets known as Rainbow Flyers. Six million flyers were distributed nationwide. When asked how she would like to be rewarded for her efforts in Roosevelt's successful campaign, Dewson requested that Roosevelt appoint Frances Perkins (1882–1965; see entry) as secretary of labor. (Perkins was appointed to this position in 1933 and became the first woman to hold a position in a U.S. presidential cabinet.) Dewson also established the Reporter Plan, a network of women who volunteered to study the impact of Roosevelt's New Deal programs and monitor the progress of government agencies in their communities. Five thousand women joined the network in 1934; by 1940 thirty thousand had joined. They shared their findings at community club meetings. Again organizing women's support for Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election, Dewson was the head of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee from 1932 to 1937. In the 1940 campaign for
Women of the New Deal
After Franklin Roosevelt's presidential election victory in November 1932, Molly Dewson met with Eleanor Roosevelt and others to compile a list of women who would make good appointees to public office in the Roosevelt administration. They considered, in particular, professionally trained social workers who would be familiar with formal organizational structures and key economic issues of the day. They compiled a list of one hundred women, with emphasis placed on fifteen, such as Francis Perkins, Ellen Woodward (1887–1971; see entry), and Nellie Tayloe Ross. Though success was slow in the number of appointments made through the years, some major gains were realized. In some cases Dewson had a direct role in the appointment and in other cases a more distant influence. Some of the resulting appointees included the following women:
frances perkins (1882–1965): secretary of labor
jo coffin: u.s. government printing office administrator
nellie tayloe ross (1876–1977): director of the u.s. mint
ruth bryan owen (1885–1954): minister to denmark
florence e. allen (1884–1966): judge on the u.s. circuit court of appeals
ellen sullivan woodward (1887–1971): works progress administration administrator
mary mcleod bethune (1875–1955): director of the negro affairs division of the national youth administration
hallie flanagan (1890–1969): head of the federal theatre project
Roosevelt's reelection, she served in a much more limited capacity. Although she was primarily focused on increasing women's political participation, in 1937 Dewson did accept a position in the Roosevelt administration in Washington, D.C. She served briefly on the Social Security Board, but after nine months, she decided to return to a private life.
Dewson's close ties with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins provided the foundation for Dewson's power. With President Roosevelt's sudden death in April 1945, Dewson's political influence suddenly ended. She retired to her personal life, serving in some limited duties such as on the board of the National Consumers' League. She would get together with Eleanor Roosevelt and Perkins on occasion. Sometimes referred to as the "Ladies Brain Trust" (in reference to President Roosevelt's advisors, dubbed the Brain Trust ; see entry), the three carried the feminist cause and shaped Democratic politics for years to come. In 1952 Dewson and Porter retired to their home in Castine, Maine. In 1960, at age eighty-six, Dewson ran for a Maine state senate seat. Dewson died in October 1962, only two weeks before the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. Polly Porter died in 1972.
For More Information
roosevelt, eleanor, and lorena a. hickok. ladies of courage. new york, ny: putnam, 1954.
ware, susan. beyond suffrage: women in the new deal. cambridge, ma: harvard university press, 1981.
ware, susan. holding their own: american women in the 1930s. boston, ma: twayne publishers, 1982.
ware, susan. partner and i: molly dewson, feminism, and new deal politics. new haven, ct: yale university press, 1987.