Remembering Dorothy Height

Posted: Tue, 04/20/2010 - 5:00pm

I was always thoroughly intimidated in Dorothy Height's presence.

It's not because she was regal or holier-than-thou. It's that she was neither of those things. And somehow, she should have been. Could easily have been.

In the news business, we typically refer to people by the title "Doctor" only if they are physicians. But for Dr. Height, I will have to make an exception. That's all any of us ever called her. And she referred to us as Miss or Mrs. as well. It would be disrespectful to stop now.

Much of what was so amazing about Dr. Height, who died this morning at the age of 98, was her sheer indefatigability and her grace. She may have witnessed the worst and the best of how America grappled with race and gender conflict during her near century-long life span, but she always managed to say what she had to without sounding bitter.

Instead she simply demanded what she declared was due - for women and children and African Americans. Equal pay, housing and education.

She didn't mind calling herself a feminist, but she refused to fall into the trap of having others define her. She was a lady from head to toe. I never saw her head uncovered. She wore elaborate, beautiful hats everywhere - the kind with huge brims, bows and flowers that matched her suits. (The story of her life was once produced for the stage with the title "If This Hat Could Talk.") She managed to be old-fashioned, even as she demanded new-fashioned justice.

Perhaps it was that genteel, almost prim outward presence that allowed her to get audiences with presidents, and to get a seat at the civil rights table at a time when so many of the movement's other female leaders were relegated to supporting roles...

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