Mary Dewson (1874-1962)

Mary (“Molly”) Dewson was a close friend of the Roosevelts, and she held several important positions during the 1930s, including director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, advisor to the National Recovery Administration (NRA), adviser to the Committee on Economic Security (which set the parameters for the Social Security Act), and member of the Social Security Board [1]. In these roles, and through her friendship with the president and the first lady, she became one of the most influential figures of the New Deal.

The youngest of six children, Mary Williams Dewson was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on February 18, 1874, to Edward Dewson and Elizabeth Williams. Edward was able to provide a comfortable living for his family through his leather business, but suffered from periodic bouts of fatigue and depression. Nevertheless, Mary had a good childhood and would later recall that she “never heard a cross, disagreeable or impatient word” between her parents [2].

Dewson graduated from Wellesley College in 1897, and her time there greatly influenced her outlook on life. Successful in academics, athletics, and politics (becoming senior class president), “Wellesley gave Molly Dewson her start as a social reformer by opening her mind to a broader understanding of the social and economic problems accompanying America’s rapid industrialization… the Wellesley faculty—all women—offered her a model of professional achievement and personal satisfaction that represented an attractive and welcome alternative to the patterns of marriage and family traditionally held out to women” [3].

After college, Dewson experienced a varied career. She worked for women’s suffrage; led the Massachusetts Girls’ Parole Department; operated a scientific dairy farm; directed the Red Cross Bureau of Refugees in France during World War I; became president of the Consumers’ League of New York; and, shortly before the New Deal, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to improve women’s participation in the Democratic Party. In 1933, Democratic National Committee Chairman James Farley put her in charge of the Women’s Division [4].

Dewson’s impact on the New Deal was two-fold. First, she brought female voters to the Roosevelt ticket, convincing them that the New Deal would offer the best opportunities for advancement in politics and the workplace. Her biographer noted that Dewson “was happiest when she was proselytizing for New Deal programs” [5]. Second, she helped facilitate the appointment of several women to important positions in the Roosevelt Administration, e.g., Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and work-relief administrator Ellen Woodward [6]. Dewson was so influential that syndicated columnist Drew Pearson claimed she was part of a “Ladies’ Brain Trust” and “probably the shrewdest lady around the New Deal high command” [7].

After Roosevelt won reelection in 1940, Dewson went into semi-retirement. Away from the action of policy and politics, she said: “I get sort of lonesome for my old friends of the FDR period” [8]. Dewson died on October 22, 1962, at the age of 88, survived by Polly Porter, her lifelong partner [9]. Recalling the significance of the New Deal for women, Dewson once remarked: “At last women had their foot inside the door. We had the opportunity to demonstrate our ability to see what was needed and to get the job done while working harmoniously with men. The opportunities given women by Roosevelt in the thirties changed our status” [10].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., “Mary W. Dewson, Member 1937-1938,” Social Security Administration, http://www.ssa.gov/history/dewson2.html, accessed February 3, 2016. (2) Susan Ware, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987, p. 3-11. (3) Ibid., pp. 14-15. (4) “Mary W. Dewson, Politician, Dead,” New York Times, October 25, 1962. (5) See note 2, p. 204. (6) Ibid., pp. 176-179 and 189. (7) Ibid., p. 194. (8) Ibid., p. 257. (9) Ibid., p. 261, and note 4. (10) See note 2, p. 193.