Mary Williams Dewson (1874-1962) — Social Reformer, Suffragist, Government Official, and Organizer of Women for the National Democratic Party.
Introduction: Mary Williams Dewson, commonly known as “Molly” Dewson was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on February 18, 1874, the youngest of six children. Because of her father’s poor health, her mother became the backbone of her family. Dewson acquired her father’s interest in history and government and would always remember her mother’s happiness in being a wife and mother. Her father helped her develop a keen 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.
Professional Career: 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. 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. In 1900 Dewson became superintendent of the Parole Department of the Massachusetts State Industrial School for Girls. There she studied causes of female delinquency and methods of rehabilitation. Dewson applied social casework methods to penal reform, establishing close contact between the social worker, the ward, and the family. In 1912, 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 in support of 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. Dewson’s contribution was to compile data used in briefs by league attorney Felix Frankfurter, in his court defense of the California and District of Columbia minimum-wage laws. When the courts ruled against the laws, Dewson concluded that a national minimum-wage crusade was hopeless and resigned. Dewson became president of the New York Consumers’ League from 1924 to 1931 and played a central role in the passage of a 1930 New York law limiting women’s work weeks to forty-eight hours.
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 workingmen and women in industry.
A prominent figure in the suffrage movement, Molly Dewson played a major role in the 1932 Presidential campaign by attracting large numbers of female voters to the Roosevelt ticket. She said of her campaign effort: “We don’t make the old-fashioned plea to the women that our nominee is charming, and all that. We appeal to the intelligence of the country’s women. Ours were economic issues and we found the women ready to listen.”
In 1934 FDR asked her to serve on the Advisory Council to his Committee on Economic Security–an experience that led to her interest in the Social Security program and her eventual appointment to the Social Security Board.
Heart problems caused Dewson to give up direction of the Women’s Division after the election of 1936, but she remained responsible for the appointment of its directors until 1941. In the 1930s Dewson’s leadership was responsible for bringing large numbers of women into Democratic Party politics. The number of women campaign workers increased from 73,000 in 1936 to 109,000 in 1940. She was also a member of the President’s Committee on Economic Security, responsible for shaping the Social Security Act of 1935. Roosevelt then appointed her as a member of the Social Security Board, a role in which her political finesse helped establish effective state-federal working relationships in the administration of old-age assistance and unemployment insurance.
Ill health forced Dewson to resign from the Social Security Board in 1938 and kept her in semi-retirement for the rest of her life. In her retirement she and Mary Porter moved to a home in Castine, Maine. Dewson still kept a hand in politics, serving as elder stateswoman to the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee and as vice president of Maine’s Democratic Advisory Committee in 1954. She died in October 1962.
For more information on the life and career of Mary Dewson, see:
“Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminsim, and New Deal Politics,” by Susan Ware. Yale University Press. 1987.
“Dewson, Mary Williams 1874-1962.” American Decades. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. (December 21, 2011). http://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dewson-molly-1874-1962
Social Security Online: www.socialsecurity.gov
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project. (2011). Mary Williams Dewson (1874-1962) — Social reformer, suffragist, government official, and organizer of Women for the National Democratic Party. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed]from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/altmeyer-arthur-j/