Georgia-born black feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes dies aged 84

Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a pioneering black feminist, child welfare advocate and lifelong community activist who traveled the country to speak with Gloria Steinem in the 1970s and is featured with her in one of the most iconic photographs of the second wave feminist movement, died. Born in Georgia, he was 84 years old.

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

Though they came to their feminist activism from different vantage points—Hughes from her community-based work and Steinem from journalism—the two forged a strong speaking partnership in the early 1970s and toured the country at a time when feminism was viewed as predominantly white and middle-class , a divide that dates back to the early days of the American women’s movement. Steinem credited Hughes with helping her feel comfortable in public.

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

Hughes, whose work has always been rooted in community activism, organized New York City’s first shelter for battered women 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, which has helped countless families through the community center she built on Manhattan’s West Side, which offered day care, job training, advocacy training and more.

“She took families off the streets and gave them jobs,” her daughter Malmsten told The Associated Press on Sunday, reflecting on what she believes to be her mother’s most important job.

Steinem also acknowledged Hughes’ collaborative work. “My friend, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, ran a pioneering daycare in the West Manhattan neighborhood,” Steinem said in an email. “We met in the 1970s when I was writing about this daycare and we became conversationalists and lifelong friends. We will miss her but as we continue to tell her story she will continue to inspire us all.”

Laura L. Lovett, whose biography of Hughes, With Her Fist Raised, came out last year, told Ms. Magazine that Hughes “defines herself as a feminist, but rooted her feminism in her experience and in more fundamental needs for safety, food , accommodation and childcare.”

Born Dorothy Jean Ridley on October 2, 1938, in Lumpkin, Georgia, Hughes became involved with activism from an early age, according to a family obituary. When she was 10, her father was nearly beaten to death and left on the family’s doorstep. The family believed he had been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, and Hughes decided to dedicate himself to helping others through activism.

She moved to New York City in the late 1950s, when she was almost 20, and worked as a sales clerk, nightclub singer, and house cleaner. In the 1960s she was active 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. Childcare Center, which provides day care and also parenting support.

“She recognized that the challenges of childcare were intertwined with issues such as racial discrimination, poverty, drug use, substandard housing, social hotels, job training and even the Vietnam War,” Lovett wrote last year.

At the center, Hughes met Steinem, then a journalist writing a story for New York Magazine. They became friends and from 1969 to 1973 spoke about gender and race issues at universities, community centers and other places across the country.

“Dorothy’s style was to name the racism she saw in the white women’s movement,” Lovett said in M’s Proof That This Obstacle Could Be Overcome.”

In the early 1970s, Hughes also helped found the Women’s Action Alliance with Steinem, a broad network of feminist activists aimed at coordinating resources and pushing for equality nationally. Although Hughes has often been said to have co-founded Ms. Magazine at the same time as Steinem, and biographer Lovett says she helped inspire the idea, she did not play a formal role with the magazine.

“It was our different experiences that made us good speaking partners,” noted Steinem. She also recalled working with Hughes in protesting so-called “welfare hotels” in New York for poor families in the 1970s. “Dorothy was key to uncovering the living conditions there,” Steinem said. “She really was a great community activist.”

By the 1980s, Hughes had moved to Harlem and opened an office supply store, Harlem Office Supply, the then-rare stationery store run by a black woman. But she was forced to sell the store when a 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 downtown is that anyway!: One woman’s fight against sexism, classism, racism, gentrification and the empowerment zone.

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

She leaves behind three daughters: Malmsten, Patrice Quinn and Angela Hughes.

This story has been updated to correct that while Hughes has often been cited as co-founder of Ms. Magazine, she played no formal role in the publication.

AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.