Pioneering black feminist Dorothy Pittman Hughes has died at 84

NEW YORK (AP) — Dorothy Pittman Hughes, a pioneering black feminist, child care advocate and lifelong community activist, who toured the country speaking with Gloria Steinem in the 1970s and appeared with her in a of the most iconic photographs of the second-wave feminist movement, has died. She was 84.

Hughes died Dec. 1 in Tampa, Fla., at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, said Maurice Sconiers of Sconiers Funeral Home in Columbus, Ga. Her daughter, Deletia Ridley Malmsten, said the cause was old age.

Although they came to feminism from different places—Hughes from social activism and Steinem from journalism—the two forged a powerful speaking partnership in the early 1970s, touring the country at a time when feminism was seen as overwhelmingly white and middle-class. , dating back to the origins of the American women’s movement. Steinem credits Hughes with helping her feel comfortable speaking in public.

In one of the most famous images of the era, taken in October 1971, the two raise their right hands in the Black Power salute. The photo is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Hughes, her work always rooted in community activism, organized New York’s first battered women’s shelter and co-founded the New York City Child Development Agency to expand child care services in the city. But she was perhaps best known for her work helping countless families through the community center she created on Manhattan’s West Side, offering daycare, job training, advocacy training and more.

“She took families off the street and gave them jobs,” Malmsten, her daughter, told The Associated Press on Sunday, reflecting on what she considered her mother’s most important work.

Steinem also paid tribute to Hughes’ community service. “My friend Dorothy Pittman Hughes ran an innovative neighborhood child care center on the West Side of Manhattan,” Steinem said in an email. “We met in the seventies when I was writing about that children’s center and became conversation partners and lifelong friends. We will miss her, but if we continue to tell her story, she will continue to inspire us all.”

Laura L. Lovett, whose biography of Hughes, “Fist Raised” came out last year, says Ms. Magazine (which Pittman co-founded with Steinem) that Hughes “identifies as a feminist, but roots her feminism in her experience and in more fundamental needs for safety, food, shelter, and childcare.”

Born Dorothy Jean Ridley on Oct. 2, 1938, in Lumpkin, Georgia, Hughes became involved in activism at an early age, according to an obituary written by her family. When she was 10 years old, it is said, her father was nearly beaten to death and left on the family’s doorstep. The family believed he had been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and Hughes decided to devote himself to helping others through activism.

She moved to New York in the late 1950s, when she was almost 20 years old, and worked as a saleswoman, a nightclub singer and a cleaner. By 1960, she was involved in the civil rights movement and other causes, working with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others.

In the late 1960s, she established her West 80th St. community center, providing care for children and also support for their parents.

“She realized that the challenges of child care were deeply connected to issues of racial discrimination, poverty, drug use, substandard housing, welfare hotels, job training and even the Vietnam War,” Lovett wrote last year. Hughes “recognised that the strongest support for local community action centered on children and worked to address the roots of inequality in her community”.

It was at the center that she met Steinem, then a journalist writing a story for New York magazine. They became friends and from 1969 to 1973 spoke across the country on college campuses, community centers and other venues on issues of gender and race.

“Dorothy’s style was to call out the racism she saw in the white women’s movement,” Lovett said in Ms. “She often took to the stage to articulate how white women’s privilege oppressed black women, but she also offered her friendship with Gloria as proof that this obstacle could be overcome.”

By the 1980s, Hughes had become an entrepreneur. She had moved to Harlem and opened an office supply business, Harlem Office Supply, the rare stationery store at the time to be run by a black woman. But she was forced to sell the store when Staples opened nearby, part of President Bill Clinton’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone program.

She would recall some of her experiences in the 2000 book Wake Up and Smell the Dollars! Whose Inner City Is It Anyway!: One Woman’s Struggle Against Sexism, Classism, Racism, Ennoblement, and the Empowerment Zone.”

Hughes was portrayed in The Glorias, the 2020 Steinem film, by actor Janelle Monáe.

She is survived by three daughters: Malmsten, Patrice Quinn and Angela Hughes.


AP National Writer Hillel Itali contributed to this report.

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