As thousands of women gather in Downtown Pittsburgh this weekend for the Women’s March, they’ll be continuing the legacy their foremothers established more than a century ago.
Pittsburgh women have been marching for justice since the 1800s — for temperance, fair working conditions, suffrage, peace, and women’s rights — to call public attention to important issues and to demand political change.
“Our Yinzer ladies have organized for cause for centuries, specifically related to labor issues, anti-war concerns, and suffrage,” Sue Morris, a researcher who writes about Pittsburgh history, told The Incline.
Looking ahead to the Jan. 19 event, expect thousands to march through city streets and to hear from local politicians and activists.
But first, let’s look back at some stories of women’s activism in Pittsburgh, a fight for equality more than 100 years in the making.
Signs from the temperance movement at the History Center's Prohibition exhibit last year.Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
1847: The women’s saloon crusade
You might think of the women leading the temperance movement as “white-haired women that didn’t want to people to drink,” said Leslie Przybylek, Heinz History Center senior curator.
Forget that notion.
Yes, it’s true that these women wanted people to stop drinking, but it wasn’t because they were fuddy-duddies. It’s because they were trying to protect their families and their money.
“The men go and drink, and the men come home and they’re abusive or they use the paycheck,” she said.
Think of their cause as the earliest form of “the personal is political.”
“It’s the first big nationally perceived piece where women feel like they can actually stand up and use their voice and say something, because it is an issue that is perceived as appropriate to women while the actions they’re taking might not be,” Przybylek said.
The women’s saloon crusade, also known as the women’s crusade, came to Pittsburgh in 1874, a time when women were fed up with all the work they’d put in to try and diminish drinking.
So women formed a chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, set up an office at Penn Avenue and Sixth Street, and got to work.
“They begin to take clear and visible action, and this is in Downtown Pittsburgh,” she said. “This is right Downtown, so they leave their headquarters, and they’ll march quietly at first from saloon to saloon. Sometimes they’ll stop out front; they’ll say scripture or sing a hymn.”
Sometimes, they asked to go inside the bars, where they’d try to convince men to stop drinking and encourage them to sign temperance petitions.
Sometimes, the men acted like gentlemen. Other times, not so much, as raucous crowds in the bar wanted them to leave and disorderly crowds followed the women.
“It’s about temperance, and it’s about drinking, but it’s really about more than just that,” Przybylek said. “It was about the condition of families, the way people were treated.”
Some saloon crusaders were arrested and taken to jail. Some found their political voice and went on to be suffrage leaders.
Przybylek described the temperance crusade as foundational, a catalyst for suffrage.
“Both things relate to women and families,” she said. “Women are saying with suffrage, ‘we want a voice.'”
"Votes for Women."Courtesy of Carnegie Science Center
The suffrage movement before 1920
Pittsburgh suffragettes were very savvy, said Jennie Benford, director of programming for the Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund.
“There was one World Series that they were able to convince a sympathetic store owner in Downtown Pittsburgh to let them use his store front, and they broadcast the score as it was happening,” Benford said. “They got people to gather around who wanted to know what was happening in the World Series, and then in between the score, they would do their stump speeches.”
In another publicity stunt, the Equal Franchise Federation cast a replica of the Liberty Bell, tied the clapper down, and drove it around Pennsylvania on a flatbed truck with the message “freedom will not ring until women have the vote.”
“The way they did their outreach and publicity was called the Pittsburgh plan, and a lot of other states took their lead,” she said. “It referred to taking the arguments outside of the city. If you’re going to do this at the state level, you have to the take the argument outside of the city.”
Benford’s research will help prepare for the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment next year. She said she’s trying to unearth information about African American women in the suffrage movement locally.
If you’re trying to imagine what a suffrage parade might have looked like, visit Carnegie Science Center’s Miniature Railroad & Village, where a miniature display documents a 1914 march through Downtown.
“The Woman’s Suffrage Parade” chronicles the “courageous women (who) took to the street in support of the era’s most controversial topic – a woman’s right to vote,” per the Science Center. The museum used newspaper accounts to create the model.
The display is led by “Boss of the Road,” Mrs. Julian Kennedy. She is followed by the “Liberty Bell” with Jennie Bradley Roessing in the same car that she drove to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties lobbying for enfranchisement.
Next in line is Mary E. Bakewell, color bearer, who “bore up well under the weight of the large American flag,” according to the Gazette Times.
These suffragettes are followed by 10 girls in white with yellow sashes representing the 10 suffrage states, a contingent from the National Association of Colored Women, and a group of “prominent men,” including three city councilmen who the Gazette Times said, “scorned possible criticism on the part of their brothers to join their sisters.”
Behind them are representatives from the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College, a group of professional women, mounted police, marching bands, the Boy Scouts and a motorcade, a Science Center spokeswoman explained.
Materials from an “Equality Rally” held in 1982 in Mellon Square.Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
Feminist activism in the 1960s-1980s
The third chapter of the National Organization for Women was founded in Pittsburgh in 1967, forming “the springboard for the contemporary women’s movement in Pittsburgh,” said Patricia Ulbrich, a sociologist who serves as director of InSisterhood, an oral history of the women’s movement in Pittsburgh, with an upcoming exhibit documenting women’s role in the city’s labor movement.
“Certainly in the ’60s and the ’70s, Pittsburgh was very much at the forefront of the women’s movement,” she added.
Public demonstrations during this era included sit-ins at male-only lunchrooms, pickets for equal employment ads, Take Back the Night events, marches for the Equal Rights Amendment, speeches about abortion rights, and even a guerilla protest at Pitt football game when the university had denied tenure to a female employee.
“If there was a major campaign, the initial tactic was always to try to write letters, to lobby, to negotiate,” she said. “If those tactics did not achieve the goal, then the tactics were escalated to more public non-violent tactics, including various protests, marches, picketing, and so forth.”
The local National Organization for Women chapter also organized a coalition of civil rights organizations to counter Ku Klux Klan activity in the region, she added.
As it is today, Market Square was a favorite place for activism.
Reflecting on the work of feminists in the 1960s-80s, Ulbrich said she feels “a lot of gratitude.”
“I’ve been really inspired by them and so honored to be documenting that history because I think it’s critical to our region,” Ulbrich said. “I think we can take great pride in knowing that some of the foremost leaders in that movement came from here and really developed their leadership skills in Pittsburgh.”