Exhibit highlights city's role in equal rights movement
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009
If women have come a long way (baby), the march, for many, began in Pittsburgh.
Our once-gritty city has been birthplace or home to some of the most influential leaders of the feminist movement. They include three National Organization for Women presidents -- Wilma Scott Heide, Molly Yard and Eleanor Smeal, current publisher of Ms. magazine -- and Alma Speed Fox, former executive director of the NAACP Pittsburgh and longtime champion of racial and gender equality.
"In Sisterhood: The Women's Movement in Pittsburgh" is a multimedia celebration of these women and others who helped shape the feminist culture of 30, 40 and 50 years ago. The exhibit runs through Jan. 25 at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
Directed by sociologist and filmmaker Pat Ulbrich, it includes oral histories of more than a dozen women and one man, Gerald Gardner, husband of JoAnn Evansgardner -- both activists -- in a video montage, in which they reflect on their personal journeys toward social justice.
"I was out there fighting for jobs, but I was fighting for jobs for black men," Fox says about the epiphany that prompted her involvement with NOW.
Photo-portraits of Fox and others, such as registered nurse-turned-political leader Barbara Hafer and attorney Ann Begler, a pivotal force behind privacy rights for rape victims, appear in an adjoining gallery, along with period snapshots and memorabilia depicting the rallies, demonstrations and endeavors of a groundbreaking -- or, should we say, ceiling-shattering -- time. For women (and men) of a certain age, "In Sisterhood" is a nostalgic journey back; for a younger generation, it offers perspective on the fight for opportunities, such as Title 9, that are enjoyed today.
"It's little known that Pittsburgh was a major center of the women's movement in the late '60s, '70s and '80s," says Ulbrich, a visiting scholar in the University of Pittsburgh's women's studies department and co-founder of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. "I wanted to raise awareness. I wanted to recharge audiences, encourage civic action and promote regional pride."
Ulbrich arranged lapel buttons in shadow boxes to denote the causes that impassioned women before the Internet became a rallying tool. They are grouped by key issues, including abortion rights, lesbian-gay rights, politics, the Equal Rights Amendment and violence against women. "I am a furious female!" one button proclaims.
And while they have a vintage quality in this age of Twitter and YouTube, their messages still are relevant. "Love Carefully," a Planned Parenthood button advises.
Also on display are copies of Motheroot Journal News and Allegheny Feminist, two newspapers published out of Pittsburgh more than 30 years ago.
Perhaps the most visually striking piece in the show is a quilt commemorating the 25th anniversary of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, a project of NOW and the second such facility in the country. In the quilting-bee tradition, it was exquisitely crafted by a community of 36 women -- "72 loving pairs of hands," as it is written on the quilt -- determined to create a world safe from sexual violence. They represent the founding mothers of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, and their richly textured work bears messages of healing and hope. It is a big, gentle piece, five years in the making, and brings a warm, comforting balance to images of anger and protest.
The quilt is accompanied by a photo of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape's Anne Pride with then-Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh as he signed the nation's first law protecting confidentiality between rape victims and their counselors.
If any aspect of "In Sisterhood" illustrates how far we have come, it is copies of Pittsburgh Press classified pages, where separate categories for "male interest" (pharmacist, sales, manager) and "female interest" (secretary, model, receptionist) appeared in the 1960s and '70s, juxtaposed with photographs of NOW women protesting the paper's gender-typed advertising.
Along the same lines, we hear Cindy Judd Hill of South Hills NOW talk about her impact on the women's movement in 1968. After she lost her job as a high school music teacher for becoming pregnant, NOW sued on her behalf. Hill won back her job, and her case, which went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, set a precedent in protecting future generations of women.
The exhibit is concise, and the images and artifacts thoughtfully chosen. The video appears continuously on a big screen, giving those interviewed the larger-than-life quality they deserve.
Ulbrich's team included videographers Gretchen Neidert, Bill Fuller, Mia Boccella Hartle, sound recordist and documentary photographer Dino DiStefano, and research assistant and interviewer Marie Skoczylas.
The exhibit is a Community Connections 250 project for the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh. It was previewed at the Pennsylvania Governor's Conference for Women in September and will be shown around the region.
For more information, visit the exhibit's Web site .Additional Information:
What: An exhibition celebrating the history of the women's movement in Pittsburgh
When: Through Jan. 25. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave. (Fifth and Shady avenues), Shadyside
Admission: $5; free for Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts members
Details: 412-361-0873 or pittsburgharts.org .
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