Molly Dewson, Woman of the New Deal

Reformer, Women's Advocate

Molly Dewson, Arthur J. Altmeyer, George E. Bigge, of Social Security Board, November 1937
Molly Dewson, Arthur J. Altmeyer, George E. Bigge, of Social Security Board, November 1937. Courtesy Library of Congress

Known for: reformer, activist within the Democratic Party, women's suffrage activist

Occupation: reformer, public service
Dates: February 18, 1874 - October 21, 1962
Also known as: Mary Williams Dewson, Mary W. Dewson

Molly Dewson Biography:

Molly Dewson, born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1874, was educated in private schools.  Women in her family had been active in social reform efforts and she was educated by her father in politics and government.

She graduated from Wellesley College in 1897, having been the senior class president.

She, like many of the well-educated and unmarried women of her time, became involved with social reform.  In Boston, Dewson was hired to work with the Domestic Reform Committee of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, working to find ways to improve the conditions of domestic workers and make it possible for more women to work outside the home. She moved on to organize the parole department for delinquent girls in Massachusetts, focusing on rehabilitation. She was appointed to a commission in Massachusetts to report on industrial working conditions for children and women, and helped inspire the first state minimum wage law. She began working for women's suffrage in Massachusetts.

Dewson had lived with her mother, and retreated for a time in grief over her mother’s death. In 1913, she and Mary G. (Polly) Porter bought a dairy farm near Worcester.

  Dewson and Porter remained partners for the rest of Dewson’s life.

During World War I, Dewson continued to work for suffrage, and also served in Europe as the head of the Bureau of Refugees for the American Red Cross in France.

Florence Kelley tapped Dewson to head up the National Consumers League effort after World War I to establish state minimum wage laws for women and children.

Dewson helped with research for several key lawsuits to promote minimum wage laws, but when courts ruled against those, she gave up on the national minimum wage campaign. She moved to New York and there lobbied for an act limiting working hours for women and children to a 48 hour week.

In 1928, Eleanor Roosevelt, who knew Dewson through reform efforts, got Dewson involved in leadership within the New York and national Democratic Party, organizing women’s involvement in the Al Smith campaign.  In 1932 and 1936, Dewson headed the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party. She worked to inspire and educate women to be more involved in politics and to run for office.

In 1934, Dewson was responsible for the idea of the Reporter Plan, a national training effort to involve women in understanding the New Deal, and thus supporting the Democratic Party and its programs. From 1935 to 1936 the Women's Division held regional conferences for women in connection with the Reporter Plan.

Already plagued with heart problems in 1936, Dewson resigned from the Women's Division director position, though continuing to help recruit and appoint directors until 1941.

Dewson was an advisor to Frances Perkins, having helped her get the appointment as secretary of labor, the first woman cabinet member.

  Dewson became member of the Social Security Board in 1937. She resigned due to ill health in 1938, and retired to Maine. She died in 1962.

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