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An Activist Explains the Conflicted Role of Women in the March on Washington

Dorothy Height became active in civil rights causes in the 1930s, working towards anti-lynching legislation, desegregation of the military, and other issues. In 1957 she was elected the president of the National Council of Negro Women, and was the only woman in the early 1960s to participate in the United Leadership Council, with Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, and others who planned the 1963 March on Washington. Some women activists resented their exclusion from Movement leadership, but in this 2003 interview Height explains why she and others accepted the limited roles for women at the time.

INTERVIEWER: In so many of these experiences, you name the names: Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King and Ossie Davis and Sidney Poitier.  You were always or often the only woman in the room.

DOROTHY HEIGHT: I was the only woman.

INTERVIEWER: Were you a feminist?

DOROTHY HEIGHT: I think I am.  I think I was born a feminist because I think all my life I've been proud to be a girl and to be a woman.  But it was a very significant experience to be a woman member among those men. 

INTERVIEWER:  Was there a downside to that?

DOROTHY HEIGHT:  Well, it was hard sometimes for them to realize, as in the march on Washington, the importance of women's rights, and I think that we were so absorbed in the racial situation and racism and if you remember at the march on Washington, despite all of our efforts, and many women joined me, we were not able to get a woman to speak.**  The only female voice heard was a singer, Mahalia Jackson...  We worked through that, and we supported the march, as everyone had to do because it was a tremendous moment in American life.

INTERVIEWER:  And one of the few female faces on stage that day was yours.  If you look at the photographs of the march on Washington, that was you standing up there on the stage--there were so few other women.

DOROTHY HEIGHT:  Yes. Yes, we ended up, many of us, several of us sitting on the platform.  I was there, Mrs. King, Mrs. Abernathy and a few other women.  And we accepted that because we saw that the whole objective of freedom and equality and jobs and justice was great enough for us to say "we'll deal with this at another moment" and we did.  I don't think today it could be a march and not have a woman speaker.

**Daisy Bates, a leader of the Little Rock Nine, was invited at the last minute to give an informal address to the crowd, but no women speakers were on the March on Washington program.  

Source | "Open Wide the Freedom Gates," transcript of interview of Dorothy Height by Gwen Ifill, 17 July 2003, Newshour with Jim Lehrer Online Focus, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec03/height_07-17.html.
Interviewer | Gwen Ifill
Interviewee | Dorothy Height
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “An Activist Explains the Conflicted Role of Women in the March on Washington,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed July 18, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1359.

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