Remembering Dorothy Pitman Hughes, an Icon of Black Feminism

She stood beside Gloria Steinem in one of the movement’s most recognizable photos and yet did not become a household name. Let’s honor her legacy by changing that.

Everybody's In: Posthumous Dorothy Pittman Hughes

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On December 1, 2022, the world lost an icon. Dorothy Pitman Hughes passed away at the age of 84 after a long, active life spent advocating for equality and human rights for all people. Known as a pioneering feminist activist, Hughes devoted her time and resources to serving people with the greatest needs. From providing safe havens for survivors of domestic violence to communities in developing sustainable food options, Hughes helped to make the world a better place and hers should be a household name.

And yet, she is not. I recently asked some of my Black feminist peers if they wanted to share their thoughts about the impact she had and several admitted to either never hearing of her or being unfamiliar with her work. This caught me off guard because I’ve studied and followed her work since seeing the iconic 1971 photograph of her standing alongside another feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, both of their fists raised in what had become symbolic of the Black Power movement. The photo, now housed in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, is one of the most recognized pieces of modern feminist iconography, yet while most people immediately recognize Steinem, few are able to recall the name of the Black woman standing beside her. I’ve come to understand that, until very recently, such has been the plight of Black feminists — standing and working alongside mainstream white feminists while receiving little acknowledgement and credit for their contributions.

Hughes grew up in the South and lost her father to violence that has been attributed to the Ku Klux Klan. Like too many Black children in the United States, Hughes’ family was ripped apart by racism, and the trauma she experienced at such an early age, right on the doorstep of her Georgia home, is said to have inspired her lifelong activism. She moved to New York City as a teen and was able to find work as a domestic worker and a nightclub singer; she performed with her siblings for several years around New York City. It was in New York that she met and married her first husband, also an activist, and became involved with civil rights work. 

Being in New York in the 1960s, Hughes had the opportunity to connect and build community with others who were interested in fighting for civil rights as this movement was emerging, not only for Black Americans, but also for women and for the poor. Her early involvement with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) integrated her into the more organized activist scene and she learned a lot about the plight of women and children in the city. Hughes had a particular interest in supporting mothers, so she helped to organize a childcare co-op on the West Side of Manhattan. A working mother herself, Hughes understood the hardships that came with being a working mother in a big city and, despite having limited resources, she worked with other community activists to create what was then recognized as a “life-changing, neighborhood-changing place.” The accolades came from one Gloria Steinem, who, as a young journalist, reported on the West 80th Street Child Care Center for New York magazine in 1969. This was the beginning of what would grow into a lifelong friendship and partnership in feminist activism.

Hughes was involved with several community-based and activist organizations, including CORE, the Women’s Action Alliance (she co-founded), and the National Council of Negro Women, to name a few. When she met Steinem in 1968, she was arguably more well-known as an activist and she was able to use her own experiences and skills to help guide Steinem to become a better public speaker and activist in her own right. Ms. magazine remains the premiere feminist magazine and as co-founder, it is reasonable to question if it would have ever existed without Hughes. But when you research the origins of the magazine, some publications credit Hughes as the co-founder while others never mention her name. It troubles me that despite her well-documented involvement in activist movements and the praise she regularly received from Steinem and others, Hughes has gone largely unknown or unrecognizable to most modern feminist activists today. 

This is Everybody’s In, a celebration of people making the world a better place for everyone in 2023. You’re ‘in’ if you’re making an impact. Read on to see who’s with you.

We can attribute much of the erasure of Hughes from feminist lore to racism in the media. When she and Steinem toured in the early 1970s, the focus was primarily on Steinem. The media began to prop up Steinem as the feminist activist to watch, all while Hughes was right there. In modern reimaginings of the era, this coverage is mixed: The 2020 FX series Mrs. America, which casts Rose Byrne as 1970s-era Steinem opposite conservative mastermind Phyllis Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett, doesn’t include Hughes at all. That same year, the film The Glorias centers Steinem’s life and work and does include Dorothy, as portrayed by Janelle Monáe. But still, she is at best, and literally included as, a supporting role. 

Hughes’ work makes clear she recognized that Black women face unique challenges, existing at the intersection of racism, sexism, and often classism, and she challenged the racism within the mainstream feminist movement. One could surmise that Steinem’s understanding of intersectionality was largely informed by her relationship with Hughes, considering their closeness. Had the media, and more broadly, the public embraced Hughes as they did Steinem, she would have become as world renowned as her famous friend, something Steinem no doubt would celebrate. In an Instagram post after Hughes’ death, Steinem wrote that she “felt lucky to call Dorothy a friend and lifelong co-conspirator,” saying that “her devotion to children’s welfare, racial justice, and economic liberation meant that she left the world in a better place than she found it.” 

Hughes is also known for establishing the first shelter for battered women in New York City and co-founding The New York City Agency for Child Development. One of the most notable aspects of her career and work for civil and human rights is how often she collaborated with others, co-founding several organizations, agencies, and businesses with freedom fighters who were as deeply invested in improving the material conditions of people in need. She had no aspirations to go about this work alone and she understood the power of community. She would spend her later years advocating for her neighbors in Harlem as they were experiencing the displacement of gentrification, even taking on “empowerment zones” which she, a business owner, saw as having great potential but also as being harmful to small, family-owned businesses. An author of three books, she addressed the perils of gentrification and provided advice to Black small business owners on how to strengthen their competition with larger corporations in Wake Up and Smell the Dollars! Whose Inner-City Is This Anyway!: One Woman's Struggle Against Sexism, Classism, Racism, Gentrification, and the Empowerment Zone.

After serving as a guest lecturer at a few colleges and universities in the New York City area, including Columbia University,  she left New York City and moved to Florida, her work didn’t stop. In 1992, she established a community organization, the Jacksonville Community Gardens Project, which trained local community members to grow fresh vegetables and educate young people about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Steinem assisted in the early planning process, extending their collaborative efforts into the 21st century.

Dorothy Pitman Hughes was a tremendous woman. She embodied an aspirational fortitude, compassion, and resilience that those of us continuing her fight can only hope to experience. A feminist icon, a Black liberation fighter, and an advocate for the poor, Hughes’ name should be recorded not only in the annals of history but also cemented into our collective memory when we think of the most important social justice movers and shakers in American history.

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