Hats off to a great woman

Dorothy Height sits next to a painting of herself in Washington in this 1997 file photo. )
Dorothy Height sits next to a painting of herself in Washington in this 1997 file photo. ) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Regardless of culture, creed, continent or century, hats are a unique mark of womanhood. They not only denote our distinction in society and display our maturation, but they showcase our crowning glory – signifying that the woman you see Monday through Saturday – regardless of her struggles, tasks or titles, is not the same person you encounter on Sunday.

Queen Elizabeth is known for her exquisite hat collection; the black church acclaims the adorning of sisterly crowns Sunday after Sunday, and since the 1800s, the Kentucky Derby has been synonymous with spectacular fascinators and fedoras. It is equally no secret that women wear multiple hats; each of which speaks to signature roles. Every hat requires something different from us, splintering us into such cameos as wife, mother, daughter, sister, niece, friend, role-model, mentor, confidant, counselor, encourager, warrior, intercessor, caregiver, household manager, proprietor, entrepreneur and bread-winner.

I’ve often wondered under what circumstance did renowned civil and women’s rights activist, Dorothy Height dawned her first hat. Rarely seen in public without her head adorned, Height embodied the notion of multiple hats for multiple roles. She first dawned the crown of survivor – not expected to live to age 16. She wore the crown of scholar and orator, winning a scholarship that opened the doors of New York University, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years. As a caseworker and visiting professor to the University of Delhi in India, Height wore the hat of advocate and educator for the underserved.

Her most costly crown was that of activist. Height joined the staff of the YWCA and led the movement to integrate all of the facilities of the agency. She was national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1946-1957. In 1957, she became president of the National Council of Negro Women, while under this parasol she led the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment among young people, women and minorities. During the 1960s, Height coordinated “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” bringing both black and white women together to discuss racial justice issues. She coordinated the March on Washington along with Martin Luther King Jr., and had the ear of several presidents, including Barack Obama, who hailed her the “godmother of the civil rights movement.” In 1971, she joined Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and others to establish the National Women's Political Caucus. In 1986, Height organized the first Black Family Reunion Celebration designed to strengthen cultural traditions – an annual event that attracted over 12 million people.

Height taught us an important lesson, that crowns (not status or praise) earn more crowns. Her many hats of service garnered the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004). In her memoir, “Open Wide The Freedom Gates,” she stated, “I am the product of many whose lives have touched mine, from the famous, distinguished, and powerful to the little known and the poor.”

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, each day dawning our brims of womanhood and responsibility, walk boldly through every door and into each assignment with the courage of Dorothy Height — knowing that upon each brim you carry the hopes of the famous and the infamous, the prayers of the powerful and the poor, and the dreams of the distinguished and the unknown.

The Rev. Gail Tolbert Smith is pastor of the Universal Light Christian Center in Macon.