Dorothy Height and the Sexism of the Civil Rights Movement

Like many women who worked for change, she had to battle the raging testosterone of male leaders.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Please permit a final few words about Dr. Dorothy I. Height before she’s assigned a slot in the Black History Month index. Here are some frank thoughts about her role as a woman of the movement versus a man of the movement.

Although she was a legendary figure, I reject a lot of the phony honorifics as rather condescending. I do not, for example, consider her the “godmother of the movement.” Her credentials, background, history, résumé and bona fides are substantial enough and rise above that description, and she deserved every honor ever accorded her.

Nevertheless, to top leaders of the civil rights movement–all men–women were a nuisance and a pain, best kept at a distance so not to challenge their hegemony. The proof was not so secret in those days of sexism and chauvinism. Their credo could have been the James Brown hit, “It’s a Man’s World.”

The civil rights movement was run as a male preserve. I covered its beginning as a rookie reporter at the Atlanta Daily World and its ending as an editor at the New York Times.

Women were there, but kept within defined roles that allowed the men to lead. Ella Baker was the first director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but was forced out after a brief tenure, and the job was given to the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many of the men were Baptist preachers, whose tenets dictated the primacy of males; some denominations, to this day, prevent women from setting foot in the pulpit.

Some of the women in the lower ranks, the foot-soldiers who not only marched and demonstrated but cooked and cleaned for the leaders, complained of shoddy treatment by the men of the movement. And, the young female workers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) conducted a work stoppage and threatened to withhold sex unless the men opened up top jobs to them.