“Trailblazer” Dorothy Butler Gilliam, a prominent African-American female journalist who not only lived through but also reported about and defined one of the most seminal eras of American history, is an epitome of how intersectional identities shaped not only the life and experience of an individual but also the landscape and history of his or her community. This article is aimed at deconstructing the identities of the Washington Post’s first black female journalist through an examination of her experiences of intersectionality and juxtaposing them with those of other history-making figures of the women’s press.
First of all, we will identify and holistically contextualize the critical aspects of Butler Gilliam’s origin background. Born into the Deep South under Jim Crow Laws, the young Afro-American girl soon witnessed not only brutal racial discrimination – which is a common experience shared by most, if not all, Blacks in the South at that time – but also classism and economic disparity. As Gilliam said, “when it came to leisure time, higher education, and professional attainment, the black classes divided themselves.” In this regard, Dorothy Butler Gilliam acknowledged herself that compared to her fellow black low-income neighbors, her family was relatively better off as they “lived in the parsonage and have food to share,” much thanks to her father being the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). This financial stability – or as she put it, “insulat[ion] from poverty” – afforded Gilliam not only primary education but also tertiary education at the universities of Lincoln and Columbia. Additionally, as aforementioned, she was also born into a family adhering to the AME, which greatly valued the importance of education.
These relative advantages in terms of socioeconomic status – albeit disproportionately worse compared to white families – and ideological values, coupled with Butler Gilliam’s hometown being the first in America to have a public library for people of color, afforded her an education that most Blacks in the South then could not have dreamt of. With regard to how one’s origin can radiate positive effects on the educational opportunities for even the most marginalized individual, we can relate Dorothy Butler Gilliam to Japanese’s first female journalist Hani Motoko. Although she was at a tremendous disadvantage of being a woman in Japan’s late 19th century, Motoko was raised by a progressive, relatively well-off ex-samurai grandfather and was also among the first generation of Japanese girls allowed to advance education beyond basic schooling. This combination of intersectional identities is also somewhat shared by Harriet Martineau, one of Britain’s first female journalists, whose father was a wealthy Unitarian who “believed in educating girl,” a rare occurrence in the early 19th century. These aforementioned female figures’ access to decent education – something unfortunately unavailable to their peers at that time due to socioeconomic and ideological limitations, and sometimes just pure unluckiness because of the geographical location of their hometown or the local offerings then – opened many doors that would otherwise shut. However, this acknowledgment of their relative privileges does not undermine the countless adversities these journalists were facing compared to other more favored groups – such as affluent white men – nor the relentless efforts they made to succeed in their pioneering careers.
Moreover, Dorothy Gilliam Butler’s professional career was much defined by a variety of identities besides her ethnicity and education, such as the broader changing historical landscape of the time. As highlighted multiple times in her autobiography, despite being “a lone soldier about to face an army” due to the very limited pool of female or African-American role models in journalism, being born in a seminal period witnessing the brave “Freedom Riders” and hearing the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had inspired her to “to enter corporate America and make a difference.” This motivation helped her persevere the countless racial discriminations she encountered during her first tenure at the Washington Post, from “being ignored by white colleagues when [she] saw them on the street,” the disbelief of bystanders – sometimes even of her fellow Blacks – at her role as a WaPo journalist to the subtle racist incidents inside her very own office such as when some white men would not “let [her] exit the elevator first, as they did white women.” These hurtful and humiliating experiences due to her gender and ethnicity – which Gilliam’s professor at Columbia University ignorantly and insensitively referred to as “you’ve got so many handicaps, you’ll probably make it” – made the female journalist even more determined to create a lasting legacy in an industry that was controlled predominantly by white males and where “Blacks aren’t recognized for their talent and expertise.” Indeed, her early career working with the black press not only provided her with the valuable journalistic skills and insights but also a solid preparation in a welcoming and safe environment – which Butler Gilliam herself felt grateful for – before entering the unwelcoming and sometimes hostile atmosphere of the capital’s largest newspaper. She intended to not only become a voice for minorities but also “combat segregation by changing the attitudes of whites” through her work in the WaPo, whose night city editor John Riseling “refus[ed] to publish stories about murdered black persons” because they are “cheap deaths.” But to survive and thrive in this industry, Gilliam had to surround herself with powerful white allies – and sometimes even those who hurt her before, like WaPo editor Ben Gilbert – in order to achieve her main objectives of increasing black and female representation in the press. This open-minded perspective – “that not all white people were the same,” which she learned and accepted during her early days at the nation’s capital – despite having experienced a myriad of racist incidents daily, was key to her success at not only WaPo but also her initiative, the Institute of Journalism Education that trained African Americans and people of color for careers in journalism. In this regard, we can compare Gilliam to Lebanese-Egyptian writer Alexandra Avierino, who entered into the inner circles of socially prominent figures like Princess Gabriella Wiszniewska and Khedive ‘Abbas so as to “disseminat[e] new ideas aimed at improving the situation of woman and serving her noble cause.” However, the experience of Avierino is arguably more comfortable than Gilliam since the former didn’t have to mingle with those who might have conflicting or even discriminatory attitudes towards her community.
Gilliam’s picture could not be complete without looking at her private life, where intersectional identities often collided. Her first marriage with renowned artists Sam Gilliam saw a lot of sacrifices – most notably her hiatus from WaPo in 1966 to care for her growing family partly due to the newspaper being unaccommodating to working mothers – witnessed a lot of conflicting ideologies at play due to her childhood and professional experiences. Being raised “to frown on divorce,” Gilliam had a challenging time coming to terms with liberating herself from the 20-year no longer happy relationship. Her hesitation to end her marriage draws some resemblance to Hanni Motoko, who was deterred to divorce by her own upbringing experience – although in this case, that is not because of her family’s ideology like Butler Gilliam but Motoko’s own painful observation of her parents’ separation. However, the deterioration of the Gilliams’ marriage was also shaped by the sufferings of their early professional life: Dorothy’s depression caused by the early brutal sexism and racism she experienced when first entering journalism, as well as Sam’s poor mental health due to the early “highs and lows” of his artistic career and the ignorance of the medical establishment that failed him. Even when both of them had become established and relatively well-off, the scars of their early life’s experiences still lingered. Another intriguing aspect of Gilliam’s private life is how she chose to raise her children. Gilliam and her husband decided to send their children “to private, upper-middle-class, mostly white schools” while living in “multiethnic and socioeconomically diverse, gentrifying neighborhood” so their children can still enjoy academic rigor of those private schools and at the same time embrace their roots and respect people from all class, race, and wealth.13
In conclusion, a deep dive into the life of one of America’s most influential female journalists of color reveals the interplay of intersectional identities – from ethnicity, ideology, gender to education, occupation, socioeconomic status, and so on. These identities sometimes complement and support one another, other times conflict and collide – yet, they created the very Dorothy Butler Gilliam we know and admire.
 Dorothy Butler Gilliam. “Returning to The Washington Post: The Style Years and Founding the Institute for Journalism Education, 1972–1979,” in Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America(Nashville: Center Street, 2019), Kobo eReader.
 Dorothy Butler Gilliam. “Coming to The Washington Post, 1961,” in Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America(Nashville: Center Street, 2019), Kobo eReader.
 Chieko Irie Mulhern. “Japan’s First Newspaperwoman Hani Motoko” in The Japan Interpreter, Vol. 12, 3-4, Summer 1979, 310-329.
 Deborah Chambers et al. “Early women journalists: 1850–1945,” in Women and Journalism (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), VitalSource Bookshelf, 18.
 Gilliam. “Coming to The Washington Post,” Kobo eReader.
 Gilliam. “Returning to The Washington Post,” Kobo eReader.
 Beth Baron. “Pioneers of the Women’s Press,” in The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 19.
 Dorothy Butler Gilliam. “Being Mrs. Sam Gilliam, 1962–1982,” in Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America (Nashville: Center Street, 2019), Kobo Reader.