Women’s History Unsung Hero: Celebrating the Advocacy of Florynce Kennedy

| Mar 22, 2024

March symbolizes Women’s History Month, which was created in 1987 to highlight the achievements and accomplishments of women. Today, the National Women’s History Alliance designates themes for Women’s History Month annually. This year’s theme is “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” In honor of this year’s theme and to pay homage to women leaders who are forgotten far too often, I’m choosing to highlight Florynce Kennedy because of her commitment to what would eventually be known as intersectionality.

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was born in Kansas City Missouri in 1916. From a young age, her parents instilled in her the confidence to fight against prejudice. Kennedy stated, “My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.” Kennedy attended Columbia University for General Studies, majoring in pre-law. After she graduated, she applied to Columbia Law School. Kennedy was refused admission to Columbia Law. The Associate Dean told Kennedy that she was not rejected because she was Black, but because she was a woman. In response to this discrimination, Kennedy met with the Dean of the school and threatened to sue, she was then admitted. Sherie M. Randolph writes about Kennedy’s experiences of Kennedy in the biography “Florynce Flo Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical.”

As an advocate, Kennedy approached her activism through the lens of intersectionality. Kennedy was an early proponent for intersectional theory, even before the term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality is rooted in Black feminist activism. Kennedy asserted that racism and sexism are not only foundational to American society, but “intrinsically intertwined.” The contribution of activists like Flo Kennedy helped to develop intersectional theory as we know it today. Kennedy was an advocate for women, African Americans, sex workers, and the LGBTQ+ community. She urged members of marginalized groups to examine the techniques of oppression that are used against them. Labeling these techniques used to oppress marginalized groups as a “pathology of oppression,” Kennedy felt that by understanding pathologies of oppression we are better equipped to respond to and dismantle oppressive systems and practices.

In 1969, Kennedy collaborated with Diane Schulder to represent women challenging New York’s abortion laws. This case was one of the first to use women who suffered from illegal abortions as expert witnesses, rather than physicians. Kennedy eventually became frustrated with the “repressive nature of the judiciary” and transitioned to political advocacy. In 1971, Kennedy founded the Feminist Party, the party which endorsed Shirley Chisolm – the first African-American woman elected in Congress – for president. Kennedy was also a strong advocate for abortion rights. At an abortion rights rally, Kennedy stated, “There is no need for legislation on abortion just as there is no need for legislation on an appendectomy.” One of Kennedy’s notable protests was the 1973 Harvard Pee-In, an event she planned and orchestrated. To address the absence of restrooms for women on campus, female protesters poured jars of fake urine on the steps of Lowell Hall at Harvard University. Following the symbolic act, Kennedy issued a warning to the Dean, stating, “Let the Dean of Harvard be cautioned: unless Lowell Hall provides facilities for women…we will return next year for the real thing.”

Flo Kennedy died in December 2000, at age 84. In her lifetime, she fearlessly challenged societal norms and systemic injustices, wielding her sharp wit and intellect as powerful tools for change. Gloria Steinem, feminist scholar and close friend and colleague of Kennedy’s described her as an “outrageous, imaginative, humorous, and witty spokesperson for social justice.” Despite hurdles that she faced because of discrimination, Kennedy continued to push so her goals would be met.

Exploring the accomplishments of women leaders such as Flo Kennedy has always stirred a deep sense of inspiration within me. Their resilience, determination, and unwavering commitment to breaking barriers resonate profoundly with my own journey. As a Black, Muslim woman, the significance of representation and intersectionality cannot be overstated. Witnessing minority women carve their paths in history reaffirms my belief in the transformative power of diversity. It’s not just about celebrating their achievements; it’s about recognizing the countless doors they’ve opened for future generations. Writing about these extraordinary individuals fills me with a sense of purpose and fulfillment as I contribute to spaces that uphold and celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their stories serve as a beacon of hope, reminding me of the importance of perseverance and courage in shaping a more equitable and inclusive world for all.

Kennedy, and countless other women, do not receive enough recognition for their efforts. Women’s History Month is an excellent way to encourage remembrance, but we must continue to recognize important figures outside of March as well. Progress is driven by the collective efforts, ideas, and contributions of individuals, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and honoring each person’s input. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that every contribution is acknowledged and remembered as we strive for equity and social change.