The recent convergence of Roe v. Wade and Mother’s Day inevitably connects with the feminist movement and Gloria Steinem. And thinking of this iconic woman is reminiscent of Dorothy Pitman Hughes and that classic photo of them, fists in the air, claiming victory for women of all walks of life.
Dorothy was born in 1938 in Lumpkin, Georgia, but had a very productive time and leadership in Harlem. She was 10 when her father was beaten and left for dead outside the family door. For the family and local officials, it was a vicious hate crime, and likely the cowardly work of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was this brutal and unsettling experience that launched Dorothy into a life of activism and to improve the social and political possibilities of the oppressed, especially African Americans and their hardships.
In 1957, she moved to New York and began working as a maid, saleswoman, and singer, while raising money for civil rights protesters who needed bail. In the late 1970s, with three children, she began organizing a multiracial cooperative daycare, called West 80th Community Childcare Center, an enterprise later described in New York Magazine by columnist Gloria Steinem. This would be the start of 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 gave Steinem, Dorothy agreed to travel with her for speaking engagements, in fact often sharing the podium with her. For their next venture, and once again at Dorothy’s behest, Steinem founded Ms. Magazine, where the photo with them with their raised balled fists gained traction and hit the media. This iconic photo was originally taken by Dan Wynn for Esquire magazine and it symbolized racial solidarity, although Dorothy expressed some concern about the possible violence they could face with such an image of resistance. Later, another photographer, Dan Bagan, would, at Dorothy’s insistence, create a tribute portrait of the two friends at an event celebrating Steinem’s 80th birthday in 2014.
During this time, Dorothy continued her community service with the organization of the city’s first battered women’s shelter and at the same time co-founded the New York City Agency for Child Development. “Too many women were forced to leave their children home alone while they worked to feed their families,” she announced when the agency was founded. With Steinem, she co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance with the specific mission of promoting gender-neutral and multiracial education for children. With that in place, the duo continued to tour the country with their many messages of equality and women’s rights.
Dorothy was among the signatories of Ms. “We’ve Had Abortions” campaign, a year before Roe v. Wade becomes law, citing an end to “archaic laws” that limited women’s reproductive rights. This interest has been expressed widely in various forums and in the classrooms of City College, the College of New Rochelle and Columbia University.
In 1992, she co-founded the Charles Junction Historic Preservation Society in Jacksonville, Florida, where she continued her war on poverty by developing community gardening and food production. His entrepreneurial dream came true with the launch of the first African-American-owned office supply store in Harlem, becoming a member of the Stationers Association of New York. His store, Harlem Copy, opened in 1983 on 125th Street. Five years later, she began offering HOS stock at $1 per share to individuals, corporations, partnerships, and nonprofits focused on African American children.
His various ventures were later featured in “Wake Up and Smell the Dollars” (2000) which advocated small business ownership among other African Americans, all in the interest of self-determination and self-reliance. This lawsuit turned neatly into Congressman Rangel’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, funded by the Clinton administration which set aside $300 million for economic development in Harlem. Eventually, she was a member of the Business Resource and Investment Service Center (BRISC) which aimed to support small businesses in the community. But she was appalled and criticized the project when too many big companies came in and defeated the scheme. “Some are convinced that empowering big business 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 that BRISC’s resources were unevenly distributed among Harlem’s small businesses. Subsequently, she wrote “Just Saying… It Looks Like Ethnic Cleansing (The Gentrification of Harlem)” which provided advice to
African American business owners who may want to use similar government programs such as President Obama’s Jobs Act.
In 2008, Dorothy and Steinem reunited again at Eckerd College where they recreated their famous fist up pose. On several occasions, Steinem has been a guest and lecturer at Dorothy’s center in Jacksonville, where she has lived since leaving Harlem.