Kathryn Van Leuven (1888–1967)
Kathryn Van Leuven was a pioneering attorney in the early part of the twentieth century. The daughter of a lawyer, she became interested in her father’s work at a young age and subsequently went on to be a leading figure in legal circles, the first woman to hold a number of public positions. Although she was born and reared in Arkansas, her legal career was mostly in the new state of Oklahoma, which was admitted to the union just as she married and settled there.
While there are some conflicting reports, the best evidence indicates that Kathryn Nedry was born on February 5, 1888, in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). One of six children of John and Catherine Nedry, she grew up and was educated in Fort Smith and graduated from its public schools. With her interest in the law sparked by working in her father’s law office, she undertook a special eighteen-month course of study at the University of Chicago, although she did not earn a law degree.
In 1904, she married attorney Bert Van Leuven, and the couple settled in Oklahoma. Three years later, they had a son, Kermit, and she then began assisting her husband in his law practice. In 1913, she passed the bar (reportedly with the highest score among those sitting for the test), opened her own law office, and divorced Bert Van Leuven. She would later receive an appointment as assistant county attorney of Nowata County, making her Oklahoma’s first female prosecutor.
She began serving as general counsel for an oil company in Okmulgee while also working in the office of the Oklahoma State Reporter, which compiled and printed state reports. In 1920, Oklahoma’s attorney general S. Prince Feeling appointed her assistant attorney general, which made her the first female assistant attorney general of the state of Oklahoma.
During her five years there, she investigated the infamous Tulsa Massacre of 1921, helping to write a report that put much of the blame on the Tulsa police. Upon completion of her tenure in the attorney general’s office, she returned to Oklahoma City and private practice. In 1930, she and Kermit established the first mother-and-son law firm in the United States.
In 1930, she ran in the Democratic Party primary for Oklahoma’s Senate seat, finishing seventh in a ten-candidate field. Following the establishment of the Social Security system, Van Leuven was appointed to the Social Security Commission legal staff but resigned early in her tenure to return to Oklahoma, where she helped set up the Oklahoma Job Insurance program. Utilizing the close relationship she had with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1936, Van Leuven submitted a plan to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that was a model for the Federal Food Stamp Distribution Plan that was enacted in 1939. Her other legal accomplishments included authoring the Oklahoma law that set up the first literacy commission as well as the first law that made child desertion a felony. In addition, Van Leuven served as legal advisor, legislative counselor, and secretary for Oklahoma Associated Industries in the early 1940s. She resigned that position in 1945 in order to serve as the attorney and service director for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1857. In 1947, she reentered private practice.
Van Leuven was also a champion bridge player, a skilled horsewoman, and a fine cook, in addition to being an accomplished poet and writer. Her broad network of affiliations included membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Women’s Democratic Club, which she helped found. She was also the first female officer of Oklahoma Young Democrats Club. In addition, Van Leuven was a longtime member of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and was a member of the Political Science Academy of Columbia University and the War Mother Hospitality Club, another organization she helped found. In 1939, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
Van Leuven died on December 9, 1967, in Oklahoma City at the age of seventy-nine. She is buried in Fairlawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City.
For additional information:
“Kathryn Van Leuven.” Oklahoma Hall of Fame. https://oklahomahof.com/member-archives/v/van-leuven-kathryn-1939 (accessed December 31, 2022).
Krehbiel, Randy. Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
“Strive to Be Womanly.” Topeka Daily Capital (Topeka, Kansas), December 4, 1921.
Synar, Edwyna. “Remember the Ladies: Women Have Power, Too.” Muskogee Phoenix, December 3, 2020. https://www.muskogeephoenix.com/news/remember-the-ladies-women-have-power-too/article_98b4a87a-2cc2-5b1d-a310-508826c6c80d.html (accessed December 31, 2022).
William H. Pruden III
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