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Pioneering African-American feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes has died

Dorothy Pitman Hughes poses at her home in St. Johns, Florida, on September 24, 2013, with a poster that uses a 1970s image of her and Gloria Steinem.  (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Dorothy Pitman Hughes poses at her home in St. Johns, Florida, on September 24, 2013, with a poster that uses a 1970s image of her and Gloria Steinem. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a pioneering Afro-American feminist, child welfare advocate, and lifelong community activist who has traveled the country speaking with Gloria Steinem in the 1970s and appears with her in one of the most iconic photos of the second wave feminist movement, passed away. She was 84 years old.

Hughes died on December 1 in Tampa, Florida, at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, said Maurice Sconiers of Sconiers Funeral Home in Columbus, Georgia. her daughter, Delethia Ridley Malmstensaid the cause of his death was old age.

Though they came to feminism from different quarters—Hughes from community activism and Steinem from journalism—the two forged a powerful speaking association in the early 1970s, touring the country at a time when feminism was viewed as predominantly white and black. middle class, a division that goes back to the origins of the American women’s movement. Steinem credited Hughes with helping her feel comfortable speaking in public.

In one of the most famous images of the time, taken in October 1971, the two raised their right arms in salute. Blackpower. The photo is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Hughes, his work always rooted in community activism, organized the first battered women’s shelter in New York City and co-founded the New York City Agency for Child Development 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 established on Manhattan’s West Side, offering day care, job training, advocacy training and more.

“He took families off the street and gave them work”said Malmsten, her daughter, to Associated Press on Sunday, reflecting on what he felt was his mother’s most important job.

Steinem also paid tribute to Hughes’ community work. “My friend Dorothy Pitman Hughes ran a pioneer child care center on the West Side of Manhattan,” Steinem said in an email. “We met in the 1970s when I wrote about that child care center, and we became lifelong conversation partners and friends. We will miss her, but if we keep telling her story, she will continue to inspire us all.”

Laura L. Lovett, whose Hughes biography “With Her Fist Raised” came out last year, told Ms. Magazine (which Pitman co-founded with Steinem) that Hughes “defined herself as a feminist, but she rooted her feminism in her experience and in more fundamental needs for safety, food, shelter, and child care.”

Gloria Steinem, left, and Dorothy Pitman Hughes raise their fists together, resembling a photograph taken during the height of their activism together, at the Lazarra Theater at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., during a speaking event on 10 March 2011. (Jon M. Fletcher/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
Gloria Steinem, left, and Dorothy Pitman Hughes raise their fists together, resembling a photograph taken during the height of their activism together, at the Lazarra Theater at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., during a speaking event on 10 March 2011. (Jon M. Fletcher/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

Born Dorothy Jean Ridley on October 2, 1938, in Lumpkin, Georgia, Hughes became committed to activism at a young age, according to an obituary written by her family. When she was 10 years old, she said, her father was nearly beaten to death and left on the family’s doorstep. The family believed that he had been attacked by the Ku Klux Klanand Hughes decided to devote herself to helping others through activism.

She moved to New York City in the late 1950s when she was in her late 20s and worked as a sales clerk, nightclub singer, and house cleaner. By the 1960s she had become 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 the children as well as support for their parents.

“He realized that child care challenges were deeply entangled with issues of racial profiling, poverty, drug use, substandard housing, welfare hotels, job training, and even the Vietnam War,” Lovett wrote last year. Hughes “recognised that the strongest anchor for local community action centered on children, and he worked to fix the roots of inequality in his community.”

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

Dorothy’s style was to denounce the racism she saw in the white women’s movement.Lovett said in Ms. “She frequently took 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.”

In the 1980s, Hughes was becoming a businesswoman. 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 an African-American woman. She was forced to sell the store when a Staples opened nearby, part of President Bill Clinton’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone program.

FILE - Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes attend the Ms. Foundation for Women Gloria Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 1, 2014. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP, File)
FILE – Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes attend the Ms. Foundation for Women Gloria Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York on May 1, 2014. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP, File)

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

Hughes was played in “The Glorias,” the 2020 film about Steinem, by actress Janelle Monaé.

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

(with information from AP)

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