Phillips, Lena Madesin (1881–1955)

views updated

Phillips, Lena Madesin (1881–1955)

American lawyer, women's rights advocate, and writer. Born Anna Lena Phillips on September 15, 1881, in Nicholasville, Kentucky; died on May 21, 1955, in Marseilles, France; daughter of William Henry Phillips (a judge) and Alice (Shook) Phillips; educated at Jessamine Female Institute, Woman's College of Baltimore (later Goucher College), and Peabody Conservatory of Music; graduated from University of Kentucky Law School in 1917; New York University Law School, LL.M., 1923; lived with Marjory Lacey-Baker (an actress).

Became one of the first female graduates of the University of Kentucky Law School (1917); founded and presided over both the National and the International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs; practiced law, contributed to publications, and championed women's rights.

Born into a prominent family in Kentucky in 1881, Anna Lena Phillips preferred to use the name Lena Madesin (a version of the French word médecin), originally taken to honor her half-brother who at the time was studying medicine in France. Her father was a popular county judge, and her mother was a talented musician who inspired her daughter to pursue a career as a concert pianist. However, while Phillips was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in 1902, she fell and sustained an arm injury which ended her performing ambitions. After serving as the head of the music department at Jessamine Institute in her hometown of Nicholasville and trying unsuccessfully to sell music she had composed, she took care of her father's household for a time after her mother's death. She remained active in musical activities but in 1915 suffered a nervous breakdown, which ultimately propelled her in new directions.

Phillips entered the University of Kentucky Law School, and in 1917 became one of its first female graduates. She subsequently began to practice law in Nicholasville. As secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky War Fund Committee of the National War Work Council of the YWCA, she was asked by the national organization to take a higher position. She declined, telling the YWCA, "I am not interested in being one of 11 field secretaries," but later took on the position of executive secretary of the YWCA's National Business Women's Committee, which had been formed for businesswomen engaged in war work. In this capacity, she found that there was a definite need for a national organization to promote the interests of business and professional women. In 1919, with the support of the YWCA, she organized a meeting in St. Louis which launched the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (NFBPWC). After Phillips was elected executive secretary, she organized the group's first offices and founded its official journal, Independent Woman.

Leaving her duties at the NFBPWC in 1923, Phillips received a master's degree in law from New York University Law School and moved in with actress Marjory Lacey-Baker , who became her lifelong companion. After a fallow period during which Phillips saw little money coming in, she became a leading female attorney in New York City. She then rejoined the NFBPWC, becoming its membership and program chair and its president from 1926 to 1929. Phillips supported many social and feminist issues, including equal pay for women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a child labor amendment which opponents denounced as communist. She also backed peace issues such as the World Court and arms limitations.

In 1928, Phillips made several tours through Europe, hoping to establish an international organization of business and professional women. After stepping down as president of the NFBPWC, she became president of the new International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (IFBPWC), which she led until 1947. In 1933, she was one of the main organizers of the International Congress of Women, held at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Phillips spent a great deal of time in Europe in the 1930s, speaking to women's groups in 22 countries and promoting the rights of women. In 1936, she was a co-speaker with Frances Perkins , U.S. secretary of labor, at the International Federation Congress in Paris. Continuing to speak out against discrimination of all kinds, Phillips renewed her efforts for an equal rights amendment during World War II, saying that "America does not want its women penalized because of laws based upon a feudal tradition." She promoted the election of women to public office at all levels and in 1943 criticized a New York City branch of the NFBPWC which barred two African-American professional women from membership. Though a pacifist for many years, she supported the war effort, in 1945 touring Sweden and Great Britain on a special mission for the Office of War Information on behalf of European business and professional women. After the war, she helped European women rebuild branches of the IFBPWC, participated in many forums and discussions in the United States about postwar problems, and was a strong supporter of the fledgling United Nations.

Phillips also wrote poetry, short stories, and articles. She contributed often to the Independent Woman and other publications, and in 1935 gave up the practice of law to become an associate editor of Pictorial Review, for which she wrote a regular column. After moving with Lacey-Baker to Westport, Connecticut, she also made two unsuccessful runs for political office, for the Connecticut legislature in 1942 and for lieutenant governor of Connecticut in 1948. Although a staunch Democrat, she ran for the latter office on the Progressive Party ticket as a supporter of presidential candidate Henry Wallace. This was a controversial move, since Wallace's candidacy was considered suspect by many in an era when, as Phillips put it, "[a] Communist is now being discovered under every bush and I am prepared to be smeared once more."

While she was involved in numerous other activities, Phillips' enthusiasm for the NFBPWC and the IFBPWC never waned, and in May 1955 she undertook a trip to Beirut to explore how professional women were organized in the Middle East. Her journey was cut short by complications from surgery for a perforated ulcer, however, and she died in Marseilles, France, that same month.


Current Biography 1946. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1946.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb, eds. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor

About this article

Phillips, Lena Madesin (1881–1955)

Updated About content Print Article