Dorothy Pitman Hughes: pioneering Black feminist dies age 84

Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a pioneering Black feminist and community activist who co-founded Ms magazine with Gloria Steinem and appeared with her in one of the most iconic photos of the second-wave feminist movement, has died age 84.

Hughes died on 1 December in Tampa, Florida, at the home of her daughter and son-in-law, said funeral director Maurice Sconiers. Her daughter, Delethia Ridley Malmsten, said the cause was old age.

Hughes and Steinem forged a powerful speaking partnership in the early 1970s, touring the country at a time when feminism was seen as predominantly white and middle class. Steinem credited Hughes with helping her become comfortable speaking in public.

In one of the most famous images of the era, taken in October 1971, the two raised their right arms in the Black Power salute. Played by Janelle Monaé, Hughes featured in The Glorias, the 2020 film about Steinem.

Janelle Monaé (right) as Hughes in The Glorias. Photograph: Dan McFadden/AP

Born Dorothy Jean Ridley on 2 October 1938, in Lumpkin, Georgia, Hughes organised the first shelter for battered women in New York City and co-founded the New York City Agency for Child Development to broaden childcare services in the city.

When she was 10, her father was nearly beaten to death and left on the family’s doorstep. The family believed he was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan.

She moved to New York City in the late 1950s and worked as a salesperson, nightclub singer and house cleaner. By the 1960s she had become involved in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

In the late 1960s, she set up the West 80th St Community Childcare Center, where in 1968 she met Steinem, who was then a journalist writing a story for New York Magazine. They became friends and from 1969 to 1973 spoke across the country on gender and race issues. They co-founded Ms in 1972, with the first issue featuring Wonder Woman on its cover.

Hughes with Steinem in 2014.
Hughes with Steinem in 2014. Photograph: Scott Roth/Invision/AP

Malmsten said her mother’s biggest contribution was helping entire families through the community centre. “She took families off the street and gave them jobs.”

Laura L Lovett, whose biography of Hughes, With Her Fist Raised, came out last year, said in Ms Hughes “defined herself as a feminist, but rooted her feminism in her experience and in more fundamental needs for safety, food, shelter and child care”.

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

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

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