Women's Equality Day celebration includes video project of locals involved in women's movement
This image from 1946 shows Pittsburgh women seeking equal pay after World War II. In 1946, the United Electrical Workers struck for equal pay. The two men in this picture, Charles Copeland and Paul Carmichael of Local 601, toured the picket lines pretending to be Westinghouse executives. The company's executives, workers charged, made $149,000 a year but refused to give women equal pay for equal work.
In a successful effort to obtain equal pay for women who worked in G.C. Murphy's warehouses, local members of the National Organization for Women picketed G.C. Murphy's stores throughout Allegheny County. The company paid out $548,000 in back pay to 246 women in 1972.
Eleanor Smeal, then president of NOW, addresses rally by Mt. Lebanon secretaries and clerks during the 1970s.
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For leaders of the women's movement, winning the right to vote was just the start of a battle for equality that continues today in classrooms and workplaces, on athletic courts and at the front lines of the U.S. military.
Local feminists won a victory in the early 1970s when they successfully challenged The Pittsburgh Press' use of help wanted ads, which were divided into "help wanted male" and "help wanted female."
In that era, a woman who held a mathematics degree was shut out of higher-paying jobs.
"All the good jobs were in the men's section, and all the keypunch operators' jobs were in the women's section," said Patricia Ulbrich, a sociologist and filmmaker who is documenting the history of the women's movement in Pittsburgh.
- Where: Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland.
- When: Today 5:30-8 p.m.
- Tickets: $35 at door; payment by Visa or MasterCard, check or cash. Proceeds benefit the "In Sisterhood" project documenting the women's movement in Pittsburgh during the latter half of the 20th century.
Backed by the entire newspaper industry, the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press argued that changing the ads would violate its constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press. The U.S. Supreme Court decided the ads were discriminatory, a ruling that forced newspapers nationwide to start running gender-neutral classified ads.
Today, local women can celebrate their progress by watching Dr. Ulbrich's 15-minute multimedia presentation as part of Women's Equality Day. Established in 1971, this day, Aug. 26, marks the certification of the 19th Amendment, the law that gave women the right to vote in 1920. The movement goes back even further, to a gathering of suffragists at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848.
Dr. Ulbrich's project, "In Sisterhood," features interviews with 16 feminists who were active here during the latter half of the 20th century. It looks at the people who walked picket lines, donated cash to start feminist publications such as K.N.O.W., founded Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, started a Women's Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh and marched to the nation's capital to support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
A co-founder of the local Women and Girls Foundation, Dr. Ulbrich hopes to interview 30 more people for the project and donate her research to the University of Pittsburgh.
"I wanted to be more inclusive than just prominent leaders. The women's movement here was incredibly dynamic," Dr. Ulbrich said during an interview in her Oakland office. The additional interviews will be turned into five-minute videos that focus on a particular issue.
Today's gathering at 5:30 p.m. is part fundraiser, part rally. Liberal talk host Lynn Cullen will conduct an auction at Oakland's Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., to raise additional money for Dr. Ulbrich's project, which is supported by local foundations. Among the activities, audience members will hear Jeanne Clark, a longtime local feminist, speak about how the movement changed her life.
"One of the reasons we were so successful in the 1970s and 1980s is that we were overeducated and underemployed. We were changing the world at the same time we were raising our kids. We opened up jobs for women," Ms. Clark said.
But the workplace is still far from a zone of equity; today's female wage earners are paid 74 to 77 cents for every dollar a man receives, said Eleanor Smeal, who in 1987 founded the Feminist Majority Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that seeks social, political and economic equality for women.
Three women with Pittsburgh ties -- Ms. Smeal, Molly Yard and Wilma Scott Heide -- each served as president of the National Organization for Women, which was founded in 1966 and has 500,000 members today.
Ms. Smeal, the first paid NOW president, said early victories here were energizing. NOW challenged G.C. Murphy Co. by picketing its stores all over Allegheny County, seeking fair pay for women who bent and picked up merchandise in the company's warehouses. G.C. Murphy claimed men did the heavy lifting.
"The truth is the men had forklifts. Women were doing the physical work but getting paid less," Ms. Smeal said.
To settle the women's federal lawsuit in 1972, G.C. Murphy paid $548,000 in back pay to 246 women who worked in Murphy's McKeesport warehouse.
"That was very encouraging because you had an actual win," Ms. Smeal said.
Other victories included admission of girls to Little League baseball teams, challenging the licenses of local television stations, which prompted them to hire women, and opening the doors to professions such as medicine, law and dentistry.
"The major thing our generation did succeed in was giving our daughters far more educational opportunities in professions that were principally male," Ms. Smeal said.
When women first sought admission to medical and law schools, she recalled, naysayers warned that "women didn't want to be a doctor or lawyer. They wanted to marry one. No one would say that now."
Women now make up at least 50 percent of medical school enrollment.
Ms. Smeal said the fight to hold on to these gains remains constant because businesses often try to gut Title VII, the federal law passed to ensure fairness in hiring, wages and promotions.
"There's been an organized opposition every inch of the way," Ms. Smeal said, because equal pay costs companies more money.
Some companies "make money off the fact that women are clustered in certain jobs and you pay them less. If you can have a full-time adult being paid less, guess what? You're going to keep that gimmick going on. If an industry is principally female, they are getting those workers for less money."
First Published August 26, 2009 12:00 am