Pittsburgh's First Female Council Member Was No Stranger To Breaking Barriers

Jul 19, 2017

For most of the history of Pittsburgh, elected officials have been white men. But in 1956, then-Mayor David L. Lawrence did something unheard of: he appointed a woman to City Council.

That woman was Irma D’Ascenzo, an Italian-American Hazelwood resident who was working as secretary and chief examiner for the city's Civil Service Commission. Throughout World War II, and in the years following, she’d been volunteering and was active in her community.

Mayor Richard Caliguiri with Irma D'Ascenzo, Pittsburgh's first female council member, at the opening of the "Pittsburgh Aqua-zoo" in 1967.
Credit Family of Irma D'Ascenzo

D’Ascenzo’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Persuit, said Lawrence recognized that rising to council was a natural step for her.

“It started with civic engagement as a voter, as a volunteer, as someone who is invested in her family and her community, in her city,” Persuit said. “Then ultimately, he saw her as someone that could be that change and then made it happen.”

When D’Ascenzo served on council, members were elected at-large; they didn’t have the current nine council districts. Persuit said, after she served her first appointed one-year term, her great-grandmother was reelected three times until her unexpected death in 1970.

As for being the sole woman, Persuit said D'Ascenzo didn't talk about it much.

"I'm not sure, but I don't think she talked to my family about that," Persuit said. "Even if she had felt that, I don't know that she would have articulated a whole lot of it."

Persuit said her family have a lot of D’Ascenzo’s items from her time in council, including her official portrait, nameplate, newspaper clippings and even an old political commercial.

“I think it’s a television ad, and my mom’s in it as a little girl,” Persuit said. “Basically it’s a little staged with a pie and her granddaughter and that’s her campaign ad.”

A telegram from Robert Kennedy to Irma D'Ascenzo thanking her for being hospitable with his brother, Ted, at the Pennsylvania state Democratic Committee meeting in 1968.
Credit Family of Irma D'Ascenzo

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University, said D'Ascenzo's appointment was unusual for the times. Most women serving in higher office, she said, had acquired the position because their husband or brother or other male relative had died.

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"For Mayor Lawrence to appoint a woman to Pittsburgh City Council, that would have been extremely progressive for the time," Brown said. "It’s interesting to have a woman appointed at this level in her own right, without having a relationship, a male relationship to tie her to the seat."

D’Ascenzo served as chair of the parks, recreation and library committee, overseeing funding and zoning projects in the city. Brown said women in office tend to think about family and children more often than their male counterparts when crafting and deciding on legislation.

Irma D'Ascenzo with a John F. Kennedy supporter at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Ca. in 1960.
Credit Democratic National Convention

"It’s a wonderful message to be sending to women that they belong in this public service space," Brown said. "But it also sends a really great message to men and children, too, that women are to be valued."

In 1968, D'Ascenzo became the first female president of the National Council of the University of Pittsburgh, which oversees the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms. The next year, she became the first acting female council president, temporarily filling in for the regular president when he became hospitalized.

“(She was) someone who was just a really strong woman and who really cared about Pittsburgh and really cared about family,” Persuit said.

Persuit said her great-grandmother instilled in her family the importance of civic duty; most of her lineage worked in education or politics.

“We’re kind of carrying on this tradition of public service,” Persuit said. “It’s something that’s been instilled in us for a long time.”

There have been just 11 female council members since D'Ascenzo. Four are currently serving.

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