Like many people all over the country, I knew a little about the Flo Kennedy legend long before I met her in the flesh. In fact, the name “Flo” alone was enough to evoke images of outrageous and creative troublemaking in almost any area, from minority hiring to ban-the-bomb. Just as there was only one Eleanor or Winston, one Stokely or Marilyn or Mao, there was only one Flo.
Of course, her fame was more limited. But for those who had been in the Black Movement when it was still known as Civil Rights, or in the Consumer Movement that predated Ralph Nader, or in the Women’s Movement when it was still supposed to be a few malcontents in sneakers, or in the Peace Movement when there was more worry about nuclear fallout than Vietnam, Flo was a political touchstone–a catalyst in the lives of people who knew her, and a source of curiosity for those who did not.
For one thing, she was a lawyer–one of the few women and even fewer black people to get into and out of Columbia Law School in the fifties–though she had not even finished working her way through college until she was over 30 years old. (Ironically, Columbia first turned her down because she was a woman; then relented because she threatened to denounce the Law School as racist. “But it was clearly prejudiced against women,” Flo remembers. “My white girlfriend from Barnard had better grades than I did, and she got nowhere.”) For another thing, she was always taking the unpopular cases and feeding or housing a variety of social strays–long before such unconventional behavior was common at all, especially among lawyers.
At 42, she married a Welsh writer 10 years her junior, whom she recalls fondly, though accurately, as someone who was very kind and talented when he was sober, which wasn’t often. Eventually, his drinking caused their separation and, a few months later, his death. Though she had very little money and generous habits that made it impossible to keep even the small fees she earned, Flo turned all her husband’s money and future royalty rights over to his mother. Whether it’s a bowl of her homemade chili, a bed for the night, bail money, or free legal and life-fixing advice, the real instances of Flo’s generosity probably exceed their own legend.
By the time I met her in 1969, she had become well known as a founder of the National Organization for Women–though, characteristically, she had left to form other feminist groups when NOW’s rough early days were over and the going got too tame. Because we both wanted to emphasize racism and sexism as parallel problems of caste, we ended up speaking together in what Flo referred to as our “Topsy and Little Eva” team. Several times each month, we would go off to campuses and communities in Texas or Michigan or Oregon, with Flo describing herself as “tired and middle-aged” as I tried to keep up with her energetic, nonstop, and generous-hearted pace.
Image Credit: Mujer y Palabra