Dorathy N. McDonald Allen (1910–1990)

Dorathy N. McDonald Allen was the first woman to serve in the Arkansas Senate, serving from 1964 to 1974 in the Sixty-Fourth through Sixty-Ninth General Assemblies. She was elected in 1964 to fill the unexpired term of her husband, Senator Tom Allen, after his death in 1963. She was reelected in 1966 and 1970 without opposition.

Dorathy N. McDonald was born in Helena (Phillips County) on March 10, 1910, to Dora Barnes McDonald and Jack McDonald. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was lumberman and sawmill owner, with one of the largest lumber operations in the area; she had four siblings. She was educated in the public schools and at Sacred Heart Academy in Helena. Her mother died in 1928, the same year McDonald graduated from high school. Due to the financial state of her family, college became impossible, so she pursued secretarial courses at Macon and Andrews Business College in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1930, McDonald was working as a clerk at a dry goods store when she married Ray Smith and moved to West Helena. She soon divorced, returned to her maiden name, and moved back to Helena. McDonald became society editor of the Helena World, and she later worked in the news and advertising departments of the East Arkansas Record.

She married Thomas Jacob Allen in May 1941 and moved to Brinkley (Monroe County), where they owned and published the Brinkley weekly newspaper the Citizen. She worked with her husband editing and publishing the Citizen, the Monroe County Sun at Clarendon (Monroe County), and the Woodruff County Democrat at Cotton Plant (Woodruff County).

In 1944, Allen became affiliated with the Miss Arkansas Pageant, then an amateur affair; she chaperoned the Brinkley contestant to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, where she saw how pageants were professionally conducted. As Allen recalled, “The sponsors of the Arkansas contest had not the slightest comprehension of what our girl was going to have to face in Atlantic City.” She returned to Arkansas and became director of the pageant. Prior to 1945, the pageant was sponsored by the Eastern Arkansas Young Men’s Club, and upon Allen’s return, she told the men’s clubs that they needed to do it right or not at all. Her leadership in that area resulted in her being dubbed the “Mother of the Miss Arkansas Pageant.” Allen held the 1945 Miss Arkansas pageant on the football field in Brinkley.

In 1944, her husband ran for the Arkansas House of Representatives and later became a state senator, a post he held until his death from cancer on October 31, 1963; they had no children.

On July 28, 1964, Allen ran in a special election as a Democrat for the Senate seat in District 26—which included Monroe, Lee, Arkansas, and Phillips counties—that was made vacant by her husband’s death. At the time of her first campaign, she had been a member and leader of several associations, including a member of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Mental Retardation, past president of the Arkansas Hospital Association, charter member and first president of the Brinkley Business and Professional Women’s Club, past president of Arkansas Press Women, and past president of the Arkansas Association for the Crippled (Easterseals Arkansas). She won with 52.2 percent of the vote (7,567 votes) over opponents Lester Graves and Forrest E. Long to become the first woman ever to serve in the Arkansas Senate. She was reelected without opposition in 1966 and 1970, serving from 1964 to 1974.

Allen was quickly accepted by her Senate colleagues, being appointed to the Agriculture Committee and elected to the Legislative Council in 1965. Senator Allen’s first floor speech was in opposition to a proposed investigation of the administration at the Arkansas Children’s Colony, a residential facility for children with developmental disabilities, that she had long lobbied for establishing and furthering; the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. In this first term, she sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 encouraging physicians to test newborns for Phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder related to neurological problems and intellectual disabilities, and directing the Legislative Council to consider establishing a statewide program. Allen also sponsored legislation to create a board for the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy (Act 172 of 1965).

During the 1967 session, Allen was considered part of the “Old Guard” legislators who had supported former Governor Orval Faubus and were less likely to endorse the policies advanced by Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. She sponsored and passed legislation to exempt mussel shells from the severance tax, supporting the mother-of-pearl button industry still active on the lower White River in her district. She and state Senator Joe Lee Anderson of Helena sponsored an appropriation of $500,000 to pay off the debt on the Helena bridge over the Mississippi River so that the Arkansas Department of Transportation would end the toll charges; after passage by both houses, however, it was vetoed by Rockefeller.

In 1969, Allen sponsored legislation authorizing school districts and colleges to create early-childhood-development demonstration projects. Her bill directing the state Publicity and Parks Commission to develop a plan to create a Louisiana Purchase State Park passed but was vetoed by Rockefeller. As the constitutional convention prepared to convene, Allen suggested that the delegates consider granting cities broad taxing powers, authorizing the legislature to raise and set salaries of constitutional state officers, and allowing the legislature the option of calling annual sessions.

During the 1971 session, Allen was appointed to the Southern Regional Education Board. In the Senate, she chaired the Charitable Institutions committee and was vice chair of the Roads and Highways committee. She sponsored a non-binding resolution to end the Highway Commission’s toll charges over the Helena bridge, and the tolls ended soon afterward. That same year, she became chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Legislative Affairs.

Allen was actively involved in congressional redistricting to shape the First Congressional District. She also voted against raising the maximum weekly payment awards under Workers Compensation and against the merger of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal (AM&N) University—now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB)—with the University of Arkansas system. Allen was chair of the Aging, Children, Youth, and Legislative Affairs committee and was a member of the Public Health, Welfare, and Labor committee in 1973. Often, she was part of the Senate opposition to administration bills proposed by Governor Dale Bumpers, and she supported the maneuvers of Senator Guy “Mutt” Jones to prevent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1974, legislative reapportionment created a district of two counties, Monroe and Arkansas, with parts of Woodruff, St. Francis, and Prairie. Allen decided not to run for reelection. About an hour after the ticket closed that year for the Democratic Party primaries, a fire destroyed the second floor of her newspaper, the Citizen.

Allen worked as a Senate clerk from 1975 to 1976 and remained active in her church and in associations until her death on May 12, 1990.

For additional information:
“Dorathy Allen of Brinkley, Ex-State Senator.” Arkansas Democrat, May 14, 1990, p. 4B.

Carpenter, Elizabeth. “Miss America Pageant Just Kills Dorathy.” Arkansas Gazette, September 9, 1951, p. 2.

McGaughey, Carroll. “Mrs. Tom Allen—Those Who Join Also Work.” Arkansas Gazette, March 11, 1956, p. 5F.

Murphy, Sara. “Distaff Note: The Ladies of the Legislature.” Arkansas Gazette, January 29, 1967, p. 5E.

“Two Traditions Come to an End.” Arkansas Gazette, April 24, 1974, p. 1B.

Lindsley Armstrong Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Last Updated: 12/18/2020