(Untold Herstories) Florynce Kennedy: Civil Rights Advocate and Feminist
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
Written by: Sam O’Donnell
Artwork by: Joanne Qiu
Every day at 3:30 pm my iPhone alarm blares without fail. As a red glow creeps over my face, I always rush to turn it off and pretend like it never happened. “Oh do you have somewhere to be?” friends ask. Not technically. “It’s just a reminder,” I used to whisper in response. 3:30 pm is when I take my daily dose of VyLibra, the birth control pill that makes me hormonal, but effectively limits my fertility. Every day at 3:30 pm, as I abashedly mute my alarm, I think about the women who fought for my right to own my body and own my choice.
One of these badass women whose activism consistently floats in my consciousness, is Florynce “Flo” Kennedy. Born in Missouri 1916, Kennedy faced systemic racism as a Black woman in a predominantly white neighborhood during her childhood. Her experiences, including witnessing her father defend the family from Ku Klux Klan members, sparked Kennedy’s lifelong activism and fueled her reputation as someone who would never back down.
Kennedy later went on to earn her law degree from Columbia University, where she was the only Black student in her class. In 1954, Kennedy opened her own private law practice in New York, and practiced law for over 20 years. Her legal work included winning cases for the estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. After years of dealing with business practices, Kennedy changed her focus to political activism. Kennedy channeled her energy into creating Media Workshops to counter racist journalism and represented prominent leaders from Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in court. In 1969, Kennedy represented 21 members of the Black Panthers, who were on trial for conspiracy to commit bombings.
As part of her activism in the Civil Rights movement, Kennedy also became a renowned leader in the Women's Rights movement. While there were many prominent feminists during this time period, Kennedy’s voice was especially important as she brought light to the intersectionality of being a Black woman during a time of civil unrest. White feminism, which primarily focuses on the struggle of white women in society, was glaringly prevalent during the Women’s Rights movement, but Kennedy worked to make sure that the agenda of Black women was also being heard amongst the leadership of the moment.
Kennedy is most well-known for taking legal action against the Roman Catholic Church for hindering women’s right to abortion. She then worked with a group of lawyers to challenge New York’s abortion laws and is considered responsible for the legalization of abortion in the state in 1970. In the 3 years between the legalization of abortion in New York and the passage of Roe v Wade, hundreds of women flocked to New York to receive a safe and legal abortion. Additionally, Kennedy founded the National Feminist Party in 1971, which supported Shirley Chislom’s 1972 primary campaign to be the first Black nominee of any major party and the first woman in the Democratic Party to run for President of the United States.
Florynce Kennedy’s fight for reproductive freedom in the United States has allowed millions of women to have an abortion without fear, and has provided women expanded access to birth control. Her work has also allowed Black women to feel seen and heard amongst a world of white feminists, with a specific agenda that did not account for diverse perspectives. To commemorate Kennedy and her life’s work, it is important to remember that feminism is not feminism without the representation and voices of all women.
Tomorrow, at 3:30pm, there will be no embarrassment or fumbling with my alarm. Instead, I will proudly announce that it’s time for me to take my birth control pill. I know now that I am exercising the right to my choice, which was made possible by Florynce Kennedy’s dedication to reproductive justice.
This article is part of Untold Herstories, an initiative launched at NYU LS in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted womxn the right to vote for the first time. Untold Herstories honors the pursuits and achievements of womxn who have historically been overlooked as a result of their gender identity.