Dr. Dorothy Height, A Sister Whose Shoulders We Stand On

I join the nation in mourning the passing of Dr. Dorothy Height, one of our iconic feminist leaders. She was one of a legion of women who did not get the fame and recognition of their more famous male counterparts, but whose impact on the struggle for human rights leaves footprints so large they may never be filled. Much will be written about her legacy, but few know of the leadership she provided in advancing reproductive justice for all women.

Under the leadership of Dr. Height, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) broadened its agenda to speak out more broadly on civil rights issues and worked to ensure that civil rights organizations understood women’s issues as race issues. That’s why in 1963, during the famous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., she was the only woman on the stage, although none of the male speakers mentioned women’s rights. She was disappointed and worked tirelessly to build bridges between the women’s rights and civil rights movement.

If she was the Queen Mother of the Civil Rights movement, as she has been called, then for me she was Voice of Race in the Women’s movement, always calling attention to the importance of fighting racism as part of the feminist agenda.

I remember the times I heard about Dr. Height before I met her. While she headed NCNW, she led them to become the first black women’s organization to publicly speak out in 1973 in support of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. NCNW offered unflinching and unapologetic support for abortion rights because they knew the benefits to black women. They knew the majority of women dying from illegal abortions were African American and Latina women. It might have shocked more timid members of the black community to openly say the “A” word, but Dr. Height never backed down from her belief that abortion rights were closely tied to civil rights for black women.

Prior to Roe, she had supported Margaret Sanger’s campaign to provide birth control to the African American community that had requested such services, and always cautioned that freedom to use birth control and abortion did not necessarily mean freedom from racism, sexism and oppression. Her vision for our community was interconnected and universal, and she was a role model for many black feminists who followed in her footsteps.

Before I met Dr. Height in 1986, I worked closely with her assistant of 36 years, Ruth Sykes. Ms. Sykes and I served together on the D.C. Commission for Women in the 1970s and 1980s. Since I was in my twenties at the time, I was impatient with the older black women on the Commission, wondering why we weren’t more aggressive in challenging Mayor Marion Barry about women’s issues in the District, or challenging Congress about the first funding for the Violence Against Women’s Act. Ruth took me aside one day and offered me a timeless piece of advice:

Loretta, my generation was the one that opened the door so that your generation could get a seat at the table. The generation after you may turn the table over, but each generation has its own role in the struggle.

I’ve never forgotten those wonderful words of wisdom and I saw them in action repeatedly by Dr. Height and her generation.

In 1986, when the Eleanor Smeal and the National Organization for Women decided to sponsor the first national march for abortion rights–the March for Women’s Lives–the National Council of Negro Women was one of the first early endorsers of the march, again fearlessly standing up for abortion rights. Dr. Height was one of the featured speakers, but as importantly, she helped reach out to other black women to get them to endorse and participate in the march.

When abortion rights were again under attack in 1989, Dr. Height was the first leader to respond to a call issued by Donna Brazile (then leader of the National Political Congress of Black Women) and Byllye Avery of the National Black Women’s Health Project, to bring together all the heads of black women’s organizations to jointly issue a classic statement to support abortion rights, called “We Remember: African American Women for Reproductive Freedom.”

The statement, written by former Ms. editor Marcia Gillespie, called on the African American community to support the self-determination of black women to control our bodies and our destinies. Following distribution of a quarter million copies of this historic statement, Faye Wattleton, then the first African American president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, received the highest award from the Congressional Black Caucus.

Much of the work I do now at SisterSong is inspired by the mentoring her generation in general, and Dr. Height in particular, offered to mine. We’re fighting again for abortion rights in the black community against these dreadful billboards here in Atlanta, proving that eternal vigilance is not just an empty phrase.

I last saw Dr. Height last December at a meeting hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama on health care reform. Her aide pushed her wheelchair into the room, and she was the only attendee the First Lady stopped to personally acknowledge during her remarks. Her vivid purple hat and suit stood out amongst us. I remembered how Bella Abzug always wore hats, and I wondered then how long we would have this great lady among us, because she was looking so much more frail than the last time I saw her. It seemed that hats and gloves bespoke a generation of lady-like attire masking a fierce determination for justice in both women.

So in the tributes to Dr. Height, I want to help people remember that she was as great a feminist leader as many of our other sheroes who have passed. She will live forever in the deeds we do in her honor.

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Loretta J. Ross is an activist, educator, author, and is a co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and the co-creator of the theory of reproductive justice. Ross has traveled the world at the invitation of leaders and activists to speak about reproductive justice. Ross is a MacArthur Genius award winner.