Dorothy Irene Height was the first political leader to embrace intersectionality in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement by focusing on improving the lives of African American women. At a time when most activists treated the movements separately, Dorothy Height worked in both communities and highlighted the ways they overlapped. She was an extremely prominent figure in both the fight for civil rights and the women’s rights movement.
Height began fighting against racial injustices as a high school teenager when she participated in anti-lynching campaigns. After receiving an undergraduate and a master’s degree at New York University, Height began her career in social work at the Harlem YWCA. In 1937, she met Mary McLeod Bethune and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt after they visited one of the YWCA’s facilities. The strong connection with Bethune led her to start volunteering for the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). By 1946 all of the YWCA were integrated thanks to Height’s direction and leadership. Height continued her fight for more inclusivity by establishing the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice.
During her tenure as president of the NCNW Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis, James Farmer and A. Philip Randolph on various initiatives and programs. Height was one of the only women who played a significant role in organizing and executing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but her role was initially ignored by the press and downplayed by some of the leaders of the movement due to the sexism.
Height also assumed leadership roles in other organizations. She was an active member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority where she served as national president from 1947 – 1956.
In 1971, Height worked with Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to created the National Women’s Political Caucus. Height specifically focused on issues impacting African American women such as unemployment, illiteracy and voter awareness. She served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for forty years.
Many of Height’s campaigns focused on strengthening the African American family which is why she started hosting the Black Family Reunion. The event is still held annually.
Height has received several prestigious awards including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (1993), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994), Heinz Award (2001), Congressional Gold Medal (2004), and a US Postage Stamp (2017). The headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and the Smithsonian National Post Museum bear her name.
The Ellison for Congress campaign salutes Dorothy Height for forging her own path while combining the fight for the rights of African Americans and women. She is one of the pathfinders featured in our special edition collection for The District.