Dorothy Height was an American civil rights and women’s rights activist who served as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for four decades. She is known as the “godmother of the women’s movement.”
Height was born in 1912 in Richmond Virginia. At the age of 4, her family moved to Rankin, Pa, a borough of Pittsburgh. Height was a dedicated student, and while at Rankin High School she won a $1,000 scholarship in a national oratorical contest on the United States Constitution. During her time at school, she became politically active and participated in anti-lynching campaigns. Height was then accepted to Barnard College in New York, but the college changed their mind just before the start of the school year. Telling her that they’d already met their quota of two black students a year. Undeterred, she enrolled at New York University, graduating in 1933 with an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in educational psychology. That same year, she became a leader of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America in the New Deal era. She also undertook further postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work (the predecessor of the Columbia University School of Social Work).
After leaving education, Height worked as a caseworker for the New York City Welfare Department. In 1935, she was named to deal with the outcome of the Harlem riot of 1935 and in 1937, she began working at Emma Ransom House as the Assistant Executive Director of the Harlem YWCA. She fought for improved conditions for black domestic workers, and not long after starting her position, she met educator and founder of the NCNW Mary McLeod Bethune when she and U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited her facility. Height then became involved with the NCNW and became close friends with McLeod. She served as both a YWCA Staff member and NCNW volunteer, committed to rising above the limitations of race and sex. Height progressed quickly through the YWCA, moving from Emma Ransom House in Harlem to become the Executive Director of the Phyllis Wheatley Association in Washington D.C. and to the National Staff. She was responsible for integrating all of its centres in 1946, as well as establishing its Center for Racial Justice in 1965, which she ran until 1977.
In 1957, Height became the president of the NCNW and lead them through the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. She organised voter registration in the South, voter education in the North, and scholarship programs for student civil rights workers. She also organised “Wednesdays in Mississippi”, bringing together black and white women in order to create understanding between the two. Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer. The latter described Height herself as one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement, but due to sexism her role was largely ignored by the press. In 1963, she was one of the organisers of the March on Washington, although like many other women of the civil rights movement was not asked to speak on the day. The experienced led her to join the fight for women’s rights, and in 1971 she helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm.
She also continued her work with the YWCA, and in 1970 she directed a series of activities leading up to the YWCA Convention where the group adopted its “One Imperative” to the elimination of racism. That same year, Height established the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement in New York City to prepare women for entry level jobs. In 1975, she participated in the Tribunal at the International Women’s Year Conference of the United Nations in Mexico City. This led to the NCNW being awarded a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to hold a conference within the conference for women from the United States, African countries, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. In 1977, Height left her position at the YWCA, where she had fought hard to desegregate all levels of the organisation and involve the YWCA in the campaign for civil rights.
During the 1970s and 1980’s, Height had helped the NCNW win grants to provide vocational training and assist women in opening businesses. She built up the organisations reputation and fund-raising capabilities so that it could undertake major projects, and established a national headquarters for the NCNW at the historic Sears House in Washington D.C. Height also fought to preserve those who had gone before her, and in 1974 the NCNW dedicated the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in Lincoln Park, Washington D C; the first woman on public land in the Nation’s Capital and to an African American or woman of any race. They also established the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women, the first institution devoted to black women’s history; and established the Bethune Council House as a national historic site.
In 1986, Height founded the annual Black Family Reunion to counter the negative images of black family life. The event is still held annually. In 1990, Height and 15 others formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. She continued to hold her position as president of the NCNW until the late 1990’s, but remained their chair of the board until her death in 2010. Height received many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was the chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the largest civil rights organisation in the USA and named the “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” by President Barack Obama. Following her death, he ordered flags to be flown at half mast in her honour.