Note: Read Laura L. Lovett's recent HNN essay on Dorothy Pitman Hughes here.
Women’s History Month coincides with the stark reality of the past year: Women have borne the brunt of the caretaking challenge the coronavirus pandemic has created. With children at home and virtual schooling taking over hours of the day, women have left the workforce in record numbers, threatening to roll back the gains propelled by the women’s liberation movement 40 years ago. That’s why we need to remember those women who also navigated their own obstacles, economic, social and political, while forging a path toward greater equality and opportunity for everyone in their community.
Black feminist activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes is one of those women. During the 1960s, she created child-care and job-training programs and, most important, hope through her community center in New York City. Her story reminds us of the transformative power of community-based activism.
Hughes fought many battles: She raised funds for civil rights in the 1960s, served as a leader in the Black feminist movement in the 1970s and mobilized against gentrification in New York City during the 1980s and 1990s. However, she is best known as a community activist who created a child-care center that served as a hub for political action in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hughes was born in Lumpkin, Ga., in 1938 and raised in a rural African American farming community. She left Georgia in 1957 for New York, where she soon became a social justice activist and child-welfare advocate. From her first efforts raising funds for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a national anti-racism organization dedicated to change through nonviolent action, Hughes turned her attention to the conditions in her West Side neighborhood, which was deemed a “poverty pocket” at the time. Because she also worked nights as a nightclub singer, Hughes spent her days at home where she observed many children in her neighborhood as their parents worked.
She started a community day-care facility for these children, providing support for their working parents. When she started the day-care, she realized that child-care challenges were deeply entangled with issues of racial discrimination, poverty, drug use, substandard housing, welfare hotels, job training and even the Vietnam War.