Tributes Pour in for Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Feminist and Activist Dead at 84
Dorothy Pitman Hughes was a feminist, child-welfare advocate, activist, public speaker, author and small business owner. The Southern Poverty Law Center called Hughes a "Black feminist pioneer."
Social media was alit with tributes, condolences and anecdotes about the many ways in which Dorothy Pitman Hughes was a trailblazer after the pioneering feminist and activist was confirmed to have died from old age earlier this month.
Hughes died on Dec. 1 at the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Delethia and Jonas Malmsten, in Tampa, Florida, her obituary read. She was 84.
"Hughes carved herself a leading position in the feminist movement through her public speaking alongside Gloria Steinem in the 1970s - a time when feminism was seen as predominantly white and middle-class," civil rights advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote on Facebook, noting Hughes was a "Black feminist pioneer."
"And as a community activist, she also organized the first shelter for battered women in New York City, co-founded the New York City Agency for Child Development to broaden child care services, and established a community center in Manhattan's West Side that has helped countless families," the SPLC continued.
The National Women’s Law Center wrote, “Dorothy Pitman Hughes' impact cannot be overstated. From her advocacy as a child care worker to her innovation at Ms. Magazine, her leadership in the feminist movement—and commitment to centering Black feminism—made the world a better place. Rest in power.”
The Museum of the City of New York tweeted, “We remember the life of Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a writer, child welfare advocate, and founder of the first shelter for battered women in New York City. Together with Gloria Steinem, Hughes led a new generation of women’s liberation activists in the 1970s.”
And tributes from everyday people who recognized the impact of Hughes' work also poured in.
"Rest in Power! Thank you for everything," one commenter wrote, echoing the sentiments of many others.
"You have earned your respite and we need to carry your works to the next level," another read.
Born in 1938, Hughes began her groundbreaking career when she was just 10 years old in her hometown of Lumpkin, Georgia, when her father was found beaten to death on the front steps of her family’s home. Hughes’ family believes it was the work of the Ku Klux Klan. It was at that moment Hughes decided she would dedicate her life to activism.
Just shy of 20 years later, Hughes moved to New York City, where she worked several jobs including as a salesperson and housekeeper. While doing so, she also helped raise money to bail out incarcerated Civil Rights activists.
By the late 1960s, Hughes was working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
That decade brought another turning point for Hughes. As a nightclub singer, Hughes was able to stay home during the day and watch her own three daughters, along with other neighborhood kids while their parents worked. It was then that Hughes noticed a gap in child welfare and so she founded a daycare center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which caught the attention of then-journalist Gloria Steinem, who profiled her for New York Magazine.
Hughes and Steinem would become friends and partners in the Women’s Movement. In October 1971, the pair was featured in Esquire Magazine in an iconic black and white photo, both holding up their fists in solidarity in the symbol popularized by the Black Power movement. That picture now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Steinem has said that Hughes helped to make her feel comfortable with public speaking, before the pair began touring the country together speaking about race and gender issues. Hughes would often address the racism that came with the white women’s feminist movement, while pointing to their friendship as proof that progress was possible.
Hughes also co-founded Ms. Magazine with Steinem.
"My friend Dorothy Pitman Hughes ran a pioneering neighborhood childcare center on the west side of Manhattan. We met in the seventies when I wrote about that childcare center, and we became speaking partners and lifetime friends. She will be missed, but if we keep telling her story, she will keep inspiring us all," Steinem said in a statement to NPR.
Hughes would continue to be a pioneer into the '90s. In 1992, she "co-founded the Charles Junction Historic Preservation Society in Jacksonville, Florida, using the former Junction homestead to combat poverty through community gardening and food production," her obituary read.
In 1997, she became the first Black woman to own an office supply store and copy center in Harlem, Harlem Office Supply, and to become a member of the Stationers Association of New York. That year, she also began to offer stock in the store "at $1 a share to individuals, corporations, partnerships and non-profit organizations focused on African-American children," her obituary read.
Hughes closed her Harlem Office Supply store in New York and relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, where she opened the Gateway Bookstore.
Hughes and her publicist and sister-friend, Yvonne Rose, co-wrote about her experiences in "Wake Up and Smell the Dollars!" which was published in 2000, and in 2021, Laura L. Lovett wrote and published Dorothy Hughes’ own accounts of her life, "With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Community Activism." She was also portrayed by Janelle Monaé in the 2020 film, "The Glorias."
Hughes is survived by three daughters, two grandsons and five siblings. She is predeceased by her siblings Ayre-Lou Owens, Mary Cunningham and Melton "Roger" Ridley. Her marriage to the late activist and artist Bill Pitman ended in divorce. Her second husband, Clarence Hughes, predeceased her.
"She was the most compassionate and caring person anyone could ever know," her obituary read. "When Dorothy looked at you with her beautiful dark brown doe-eyes, you could feel her love. The statuesque 5’10” 'wonder-woman' had an ambiance and stance that made her stand out in a crowd and her fashion sense was ever-present.
"Dorothy was soft-spoken and calm, even under pressure," her obituary continued. "But you knew better than to let her demeanor fool you…she was a quiet storm."
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