Women in Head Start’s History: Marian Wright Edelman and Susan Feingold

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman and Susan Feingold embodied Head Start’s mission from the beginning, creating programs rooted in equity and community. As we kick off celebrations for Women’s History Month, we celebrate their contributions and lasting legacies.

Marian Wright Edelman

Edelman—the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar—was the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in Jackson, Mississippi, when Head Start was founded. She was instrumental in Head Start’s early days and saw early childhood education work as a critical extension of the Civil Rights Movement.

“After the Mississippi Summer Project, the Freedom Summer of 1964, without a doubt, Head Start coming to Mississippi in 1965 was the most important follow-up and aftermath. It led to a bunch of independent people getting jobs outside of the plantation structure, not going through the state structure—where they wouldn’t have gotten jobs anywhere, except as janitors,” she said while reflecting on Head Start’s 50th anniversary in 2015. “And creating this Head Start program, those 3,000 people multiplied into many of your hundreds of elected officials today. It was the next phase of trying to build the movement.”

She helped develop the Child Development Group of Mississippi, which ran Head Start programs when the state refused federal funding. She then led the charge in the legal battle to keep the program funded as resistance from the state continued. Edelman went on to found the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, broadening the scope of her children’s equity work.

Susan Feingold

Ms. Feingold, whose preschool program changed the lives of thousands of New York children, in 1981. Credit: The New York Times

Susan Feingold’s own childhood experiences as a Holocaust refugee inspired her career supporting New York City’s vulnerable children and families. In 1960, Feingold was part of the founding committee of mothers who came together to create the Bloomingdale Family Program. The early childhood program, which began as a recreational summer program, sought to forge connections among Bloomingdale’s racially and economically diverse families. Under Feingold’s leadership, the program developed a strong focus on serving children with diverse learning and socioemotional needs, providing individualized services that enabled children’s success in school and beyond.

As President Johnson’s team developed Head Start as part of the War on Poverty, they took inspiration from the Bloomingdale Family Program, especially its commitment to parent involvement. By the late 1960s, Head Start was growing nationwide and the Bloomingdale Family Program became a federally funded Head Start center. Feingold remained its director for over 40 years. She passed away in 2020, at 95 years old, leaving behind a legacy of kindness and inspiration in early childhood.

Women Lead Head Start, Past and Present

There is no scarcity of strong, influential women in the field of early childhood education. From teachers and classroom staff, to program directors and mothers, home visitors and cooks, women are the backbone of the system. We are starting March 2022 by celebrating Marian Wright Edelman and Susan Feingold as two of our earliest leaders, and look forward to continuing the month by celebrating many more of the women who are leading the Head Start community today.

Lucy Truschel

Lucy Truschel is manager of Communications at NHSA. Prior to joining the Head Start community, she was an Assistant Director for Frost Valley YMCA and an Early Childhood Policy Intern for the Center for American Progress.

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