Florynce Kennedy (Lawyer / Feminist)
The second of her parents' five daughters, she had a happy childhood, full of support from her parents, despite experiencing poverty in the Depression and racism in her mostly white neighborhood.
Kennedy was born in Kansas City to an African American family. Her father Wiley Kennedy was a Pullman porter, and later had a taxi business.
Kennedy graduated at the top of her class at Lincoln High School, after which she worked many jobs including owning a hat shop and operating elevators. After the death of her mother Zella in 1942, Kennedy left Kansas for New York City, moving to an apartment in Harlem with her sister Grayce.
In 1944 she began classes at Columbia University School of General Studies, majoring in pre-law and graduated in 1949. However, when she applied to law school, she was refused admission. In her autobiography Kennedy wrote, "The Associate Dean Willis Reese, told me I had been rejected not because I was a Black but because I was a woman. So I wrote him a letter saying that whatever the reason was, it felt the same to me, and some of my more cynical friends thought I had been discriminated against because I was Black."
Kennedy graduated from law school in 1951. By 1954 she had opened her own office, doing matrimonial work, and some assigned criminal cases. She was a member of the Young Democrats. In 1956, she formed a legal partnership, which proved disastrous, and she was left with huge debts. Her partner had represented Billie Holiday, helping her avoid drug charges during her final days. Kennedy then came to represent Holiday's estate, and also that of Charlie Parker, making waves in her attempts to recover monies owed to those estates. She also worked as an activist for feminism and civil rights, and the cases she took on increasingly tended to be related to these causes.
In the 1970s Kennedy traveled the lecture circuit with writer Gloria Steinem. If a man asked the pair if they were lesbians – a stereotype of feminists at the time – Kennedy would quote Ti-Grace Atkinson and answer, "Are you my alternative?"
She was an early member of the National Organization for Women, but left then in 1970, dissatisfied with their approach to change. In 1971 she founded the Feminist Party, which nominated Shirley Chisholm for president. She also helped found the Women's Political Caucus. Beginning in 1972 she served on the Advisory Board of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, a New York City theatre group who produced plays on feminist issues.
Kennedy is known for her pro-choice activism on abortion, writing a book with Diane Schulder called Abortion Rap, and stating that "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." In 1972, Kennedy filed tax evasion charges with the Internal Revenue Service against the Catholic Church, saying that their campaign against abortion rights violated the separation of church and state.
On the side of civil rights, Kennedy established the Media Workshop in 1966 to picket and lobby the media over their representation of Black people. She stated that she would lead boycotts of major advertisers if they didn't feature black people in their ads. She attended all three Black Power conferences and represented H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers.
Kennedy was known for her flamboyant dress – often in cowboy hats and pink sunglasses – and attitude. Once, to protest the lack of female bathrooms at Harvard, she led a mass urination on the grounds. When asked about this, she said "I'm just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing and a lot of people think I'm crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me."
Kennedy was well known for pithy, humorous and highly quotable statements, such as, "If the ass is protecting the system, ass-kicking should be undertaken regardless of the sex, ethnicity, or charm of the ass involved," and "I know we’re termites. But if all the termites got together, the house would fall down.” In 1974, Peoplemagazine wrote that she was "The biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground."