Peculiar Pittsburgh

This stairwell at Carnegie Mellon University uplifts women’s voices

The quotes are displaced into angles and corners — like women can be in male-dominated fields, the artist said.

Quotes from past female CMU students

Quotes from past female CMU students

MJ slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

Inside Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall at Carnegie Mellon University, one stairway is constantly filled with women’s voices.

The quotes from past female students are on the walls, surrounding the stairs, tucked into the angles and between windows on three levels of the stairwell.

The quotes, like women’s experiences, are displaced into angles and corners in the same way that women can be pushed into corners of male-dominated fields and society, said CMU alumna Rebecca Deutsch, the artist behind the display.

A 2004 graduate of CMU, Deutsch now lives in Seattle where she is the CTO and co-founder of software company Parlay. She created the display, titled “Women’s Voices at Carnegie Mellon University” as part of the Fifth Year Scholars program, which allows CMU students to stay on campus tuition-free for an extra year to pursue research and projects outside of their major that they didn’t have time for before.

Deutsch, who has CMU degrees in human computer interaction and computer science, as well as a minor in gender studies, said she would walk by Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall regularly and notice a quote on the exterior of the building, formerly Margaret Morrison Carnegie College.

To make and inspire the home
To lessen suffering and increase happiness
To aid mankind in its upward struggles
To ennoble and adorn life’s work, however humble
These are woman’s high prerogatives

“That didn’t relate to my experience,” she said. Plus, the quote was written by a man — Carnegie Tech Board member Lucian Scaife, per a 2004 Pittsburgh City Paper article — and that seemed wrong to Duetsch.

“I wanted women, in their own words, [and started thinking about] what kind of space would be good for that. I wanted it to be in relation to the quote that was already there.”

So she decided on a visual display of women’s quotes in the stairwell, where people who see the quotes also get a glimpse of the original installation.

mm 1
mj slaby / the incline

To pick the quotes, Deutsch said she contacted a now Professor Emeritus Edwin Fenton who at the time recently wrote “Maggie Murphs: A History of Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, 1906-73” and asked to use quotes from the book. Deutsch also worked with the CMU Alumni Association to reach out to women who had attended Margaret Morrison Carnegie College or Carnegie Mellon University.

She tried to find quotes that spanned decades, as well as different STEM fields and roles.

Despite that range of years and fields, Deutsch said she could see a similar pattern spanning decades decades. One that stuck with her was a woman who completed a metallurgy degree, but was given a chemistry degree.

mm chem
mj slaby / the incline

When Deutsch was at CMU, she said she was in one of the first classes to have more than a handful of women in computer science. In fall 2016 and fall 2017, women made up nearly half of first-year undergraduates in the School of Computer Science, per CMU.

Both as a student and after graduation, Deutsch said her experiences in computer science always had an element of gender.  There’s an underlying layer of what it’s like to be in a male dominated field, she said. Some women experience assault or harassment, but for her, it was much more subtle sexism, like being told she’s too direct or forceful.

After her fifth year, Deutsch left Pittsburgh and went to work at her first job at Microsoft in Seattle. She returns to campus every so often and always checks on the display.

Then, she went about nine years without seeing it. In the fall, she came back to campus and went to see the quotes, prepping herself for the display to be gone or deteriorating. But it was just as she left it.

“It was really exciting that it was there,” she said.