Mary Williams Dewson

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Mary Williams Dewson

Mary Williams Dewson (1874-1962), widely known as Molly Dewson, was a reformer, government official, and organizer of women for the Democratic Party.

Molly Dewson was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on February 18, 1874. In her youth a number of influences awakened in her an interest in public affairs. Her father gave her an appetite for reading books on politics and government. Many of her neighbors and female relatives—such as her aunt Elizabeth Putnam, a pioneer in reforming delinquent girls—were active in public causes.

After attending private schools in the Boston area, she entered Wellesley College, where she was an excellent student. She was also president of her class in her junior and senior years, organized the Wellesley Athletic Association, introduced the Australian ballot for class elections, and began the Wellesley alumnae fund by raising money for the first class gift.

Upon graduating in 1897, she quickly established herself as one of the ablest of the generation of younger women who seconded the initiatives of such older women reformers of the progressive era as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. Dewson got her first job when the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, the most important women's club in Boston, hired her to investigate and improve the living and working conditions of female domestics in the Boston area. Then, as the organizer and first superintendent of the Massachusetts Parole Department for delinquent girls between 1900 and 1912, she became a national authority on the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

As executive secretary of an investigating commission set up by the Massachusetts legislature she produced a report on the living conditions of women and children in industry. The report became the basis of the 1912 Massachusetts minimum wage act, the first such act passed in modern industrial America. Dewson went on to become a leader in the Massachusetts campaign of 1915 for the passage of a referendum favoring woman suffrage and then assumed the leadership of the state Suffrage Association.

After World War I Florence Kelley chose Dewson to take charge of the National Consumers League's national campaign for state minimum wage laws for women and children. Then switching to the New York Consumers League in 1924, she became the president. Dewson soon emerged as the leader of the Women's Joint Legislative Conference, most notably in lobbying for the passage through the New York legislature of a 1930 act limiting the hours of women and children in industry to 48 hours a week.

Starting in 1928 Eleanor Roosevelt, who was active in the Consumers League and in the Women's Division of the Democratic Party, persuaded Dewson to accept various positions of leadership within the Democratic Party in New York and on the national level in order to make women more effective in politics. As director of the Women's Division of the Democratic Party in Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential campaigns of 1932 and 1936, Dewson led in trying to make women voters an important part of the voting coalition behind President Roosevelt. She believed that his New Deal program was the best hope for enacting national legislation to protect working men and women in industry.

Through the Women's Division Dewson developed many techniques to stimulate women who were timid about becoming politicians to be campaigners, party officials, and even candidates for office. She thus created the first effective nationwide vote-getting organization of women ever sponsored by a political party. This organization marked the decisive entrance of women into party politics on both the national and state levels.

Dewson found some time in the 1930s to promote industrial and welfare programs in such capacities as official adviser to Frances Perkins (secretary of labor) and as presidential appointee to the Social Security Board in 1937. But, due to chronic heart trouble, she resigned from the board in 1938 and, except for occasional participation in party affairs, retired to her home in Castine, Maine, where she died in 1962.

Further Reading

A short biography of Dewson by Paul C. Taylor is in Notable American Women: The Modern Period (1980). She figures prominently in Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (1981). Dewson's importance to Eleanor Roosevelt is illustrated in Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971) and to Frances Perkins in George Martin, Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins (1976).

Additional Sources

Ware, Susan, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, feminism, and New Deal politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. □