Suzanne Pharr (1939–)
Suzanne Pharr is a longtime activist for social justice. As an author, organizer, and strategist, she has led numerous campaigns aimed at ensuring equality and justice. In 1981, Pharr founded the Women’s Project, feminist, anti-racist organization, which was based in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and worked with women in small towns throughout Arkansas.
Suzanne Pharr was born in 1939 in Hog Mountain, Georgia, to Cecil Pharr and Willie Mae “Peggy” Moore Pharr. Her father was a farmer, and Pharr, the youngest of eight children, grew up on a farm in Hog Mountain, Georgia, about six miles outside of Lawrenceville. After attending the local schools and earning a reputation as an outstanding high school basketball player, Pharr attended Women’s College of Georgia in Milledgeville, where she earned a BA in English. In 1964, she was awarded an MA in English by the State University of New York at Buffalo, and she later completed all the requirements except her dissertation in Tulane University’s doctoral program in American literature.
Pharr spent most of the 1960s teaching before moving into social activism. Beginning in graduate school and continuing until 1972, she taught in numerous settings, including high school, community college, and four-year college, while also spending a year as a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. However, in 1973, she left the classroom and moved to a feminist farm in northwestern Arkansas. In 1977, she took a job as the director of Washington County’s Head Start program in Fayetteville (Washington County), a position she held until 1979, when she became a researcher for the Senior Needs Projects of ACTION/VISTA for northwestern Arkansas. She left that job in 1981 to found the Women’s Project in Little Rock, serving as director until 1991 and remaining on the staff until 1999.
After coming out as a lesbian during her time at Tulane, Pharr began focusing much of her activism on gender and sexuality issues, and in particular violence against women. Pharr’s work at the Women’s Project included developing the Women’s Watchcare Network, a group that monitors and documents racist, religious-based, sexist, and anti-gay violence. She also led the work against the political and theocratic rightwing that grew in response to the civil rights movement. She also wrote for Transformation, the organization’s newsletter. She twice served as the coordinator for the national conference for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Throughout her time with the Women’s Project, Pharr led workshops across the country. Averaging between about twenty workshops a year for audiences at businesses, schools, civic organizations, churches, and unions, she gave presentations on homophobia, sexism, economic injustice, and other social justice–oriented topics. Pharr was the co-founder of one of the first domestic-violence shelters in Arkansas and a co-founder of the Children’s House in Fayetteville, and in 1993 she was one of the co-founders of the group Southerners on New Ground (SONG).
With the Women’s Project as a base, Pharr began serving as a political strategist. She saw electoral politics as an effective vehicle for the change and social justice she sought. She became involved in local and national electoral campaigns, including the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988. In 1992, she served as a press officer for the Oregon “No on 9” campaign that successfully defeated an anti-gay ballot initiative; that same year, she was a lead organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at the Republican National Convention.
Leaving the Women’s Project in 1999, she moved to the Highlander Research and Education Center, a historic civil rights/popular education organization based in New Market, Tennessee, that focuses on social and economic justice. From 1999 to 2004, Pharr served as director—the first woman to hold the position.
Pharr has authored two books, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, which was originally published in 1988 and was updated in 1997, as well as In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation, which was published in 1996. In addition to these works, Pharr has published more than fifty essays in a variety of journals and newsletters, most prominently Transformation, the newsletter of the Women’s Project. Her essays have also been included in textbooks and anthologies.
Working from Knoxville, Tennessee, she became a national political consultant—a “Political Handywoman,” as she billed herself. In that role, Pharr worked on political campaigns and grassroots efforts such as the Rural Organizing Project, an organization aimed at raising consciousness and awareness about the threat from the political right. She organized a similar effort at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, in San Antonio, Texas.
Pharr has served on numerous boards, including those of the Race Relations Center in Knoxville, Southeast Women’s Employment Coalition, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Highlander Research and Education Center, Project for Victims of Family Violence in Fayetteville, and Project South.
Among her many accolades are the Harvey Milk Award presented in 1997; the Jeanette Rankin Award for Lifelong Activism given by the group A Territorial Resource of Seattle, Washington, in 1995; the Ms. Foundation’s Gloria Steinem Award in 1993; and the Stonewall Foundation’s Stonewall Award for National Gay and Lesbian Leadership in 1993.
After more than a decade living in Knoxville, Pharr returned to Arkansas and settled in Little Rock. She is currently active as a board member of Project South, a member of the Governance Council of the Southern Movement Assembly, and a leader within the National Council of Elders. In 2021, she published a collection of essays and speeches titled Transformation: Toward a People’s Democracy.
For additional information:
Pharr, Suzanne. Transformation: Toward a People’s Democracy. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech Publishing, 2021. Online at https://publishing.vt.edu/site/books/filter/2685/ (accessed September 30, 2021).
Suzanne Pharr. http://suzannepharr.com/ (accessed August 3, 2021).
“Suzanne Pharr.” Sinister Wisdom. http://www.sinisterwisdom.org/SW93Supplement/Pharr (accessed August 3, 2021).
“Suzanne Pharr.” Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Smith College. https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Pharr.pdf (accessed August 3, 2021).
William H. Pruden III
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