The recent convergence of Roe v. Wade and Mother’s Day connects ineluctably with the feminist movement and Gloria Steinem. And thinking of this iconic woman brings to mind Dorothy Pitman Hughes and that classic photo of them with their fists in the air, claiming a victory for women in all walks of life.
Dorothy was born in 1938 in Lumpkin, Georgia, but she spent some very productive time and leadership in Harlem. She was 10 years old when her father was beaten and left for dead on the family’s doorstep. To the family and local officials it was a vicious hate crime, and probably the cowardly work of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was this brutal and disturbing experience that set Dorothy on a life of activism and to improve the social and political possibilities of the oppressed, particularly African Americans and their plights.
In 1957, she moved to New York City and began working as a domestic worker, sales lady, and a vocalist, all the while raising money for civil rights protesters in need of bail money. By the late ’70s, with three children, she began organizing a multiracial cooperative day care center, called the West 80th Community Childcare Center, an endeavor later profiled in New York Magazine by columnist Gloria Steinem. This would begin a lifelong friendship with Steinem, in which
Dorothy would play a vital role in getting Steinem to take her message of women’s rights to the streets.
To ensure the advice she extended to Steinem, Dorothy agreed to travel with her on speaking engagements, in fact, often sharing the podium with her. For their next venture, and once more at the urging of Dorothy, Steinem founded Ms. Magazine, where the photo with them with their balled up fists raised high gained public traction and was circulated in the media. That iconic photo was originally taken by Dan Wynn for Esquire magazine and it symbolized the racial solidarity, even as Dorothy expressed some concern about the possible violence they might incur with such a picture of resistance. Later, another photographer Dan Bagan would create, at Dorothy’s insistence, an homage portrait of the two friends at an event celebrating Steinem’s 80th birthday in 2014.
Meanwhile, Dorothy continued her community service with the organization of the first shelter for battered women in the city and at the same time co-founded the New York City Agency for Child Development. “Too many women were being forced to leave their children home alone while they worked to feed their families,” she announced upon founding the agency. Together with Steinem, she co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance with the specific mission to promote non-sexist, multiracial children’s education. With this in place the duo continued to tour the nation with their several messages of equality and women’s rights.
Dorothy was among the signers of the Ms. Campaign “We Have Had Abortions,” a year before Roe v. Wade became law, citing an end to the “archaic laws” that limited reproductive rights for women. This interest was delivered widely at various forums and into classrooms at City College, the College of New Rochelle, and Columbia University.
In 1992, she co-founded the Charles Junction Historic Preservation Society in Jacksonville, Fla. where she continued her war against poverty by developing community gardening and food production. Her entrepreneurial dream was realized with the launching of the first African American owned office supply store in Harlem, and thereby becoming a member of the Stationers Association of New York. Her store, Harlem Copy, was opened in 1983 on 125th Street. Five years later she began offering HOS stock at $1 a share to individuals, corporations, partnerships and nonprofit organizations focused on African American children.
Her various ventures were later published in “Wake Up and Smell the Dollars” (2000) that advocated small business ownership to other African Americans, all in the interest of self-determination and self-reliance. This pursuit morphed perfectly into Congressman Rangel’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, funded by the Clinton administration that set aside $300 million for economic development in Harlem. Eventually, she was a member of the Business Resource and Investment Service Center (BRISC) that aimed to support the small businesses in the community. But she was dismayed and criticized the project when too many large corporations arrived and defeated the program. “Some are convinced that empowering large corporations to provide low paying jobs for our residents will bring economic empowerment to the community…[But] without African American ownership, there is ultimately no local empowerment,” she complained, believing BRISC’s resources were being unevenly distributed among small businesses in Harlem. Subsequently she wrote “Just Saying… It Looks Like Ethnic Cleansing (The Gentrification of Harlem)” that provided advice to
African American business owners who might want to utilize similar government programs such as President Obama’s Jobs Act.
In 2008, Dorothy and Steinem were once again united at Eckerd College where they recreated their famous fist to the air pose. On several occasions Steinem has been a visitor and speaker at Dorothy’s center in Jacksonville, where she has lived since leaving Harlem.
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