1968 was a notable year in American history, the Vietnam War was raging, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, and the Women’s movement was gaining national attention.
Pittsburgh was among the hotbeds of change with civil unrest in the hill district, war protests on campuses and through all of that, the women’s rights movement was charging forward.
The notion of bra burning has become one of the most enduring images of the Women’s Liberation Movement that began in the 1960s. The whole bra burning thing became widespread following the 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest. But, it’s something that never actually happened.
“There were no bras burned at that pageant, it was a protest about the image of women and how women are portrayed as sex objects, so I would just like to dispel that, that’s a bit of an urban legend,” said Pat Ulbrich, director of In Sisterhood, the Women’s Movement in Pittsburgh.
Bras, girdles, nylons, and Playboy Magazines were among the items tossed into trash cans, but Ulbrich said it was symbolic. The Miss America Pageant protest helped launch the Women’s Liberation Movement onto the national stage. But, it was already underway in some areas, including Pittsburgh.
“The National Organization for Women was very important in Pittsburgh. A chapter was founded here in September of 1967 and it was only the third chapter of NOW in the country,” said Ulbrich.
Ulrich is moderating a panel at the Heinz History Center titled “Sisterhood in Pittsburgh, the Women’s Liberation Movement from the 1960s to Today.”
One of the panelists is Jeanne Clark, President of the Squirrel Hill Chapter of the National Organization for Women. The long-time women’s rights advocate says Pittsburgh has always been a leader in the movement – even when it came to changing laws.
“In the old days newspapers were permitted to list jobs as ‘help wanted male’ and ‘help wanted female.’ We took that case to the Supreme Court and won the right for all jobs to be listed by what they were and what was needed to do the job, not the gender of the person they wanted to do to the job,” she said.
Women in Pittsburgh in 1968 were also fighting for equality in the workplace, reproductive rights, equal pay, access to education and healthcare and they were fighting the way they were portrayed in the media, among other things.
The panel will also include activists Alma Speed Fox, Molly Rush, Sister Patricia McCann, and Cindy Judd Hill, a woman who was fired in 1968 for having a child.
“We can hear from these women how they effected great change through not taking this kind of treatment anymore and banding together, and right here in Pittsburgh too which is kind of a surprise. I don’t think a lot of us think of this as being the forefront of the women’s movement but there was major things happening here before other major cities,” said Emily Ruby, curator at the Heinz History Center.
Women have come a long way since 1968, but panel moderator Ulbrich says more work needs to be done, especially when it comes to domestic violence, sexual assault, and how women are portrayed and treated by the media.
“We have each other’s’ backs. I think sometimes we are encouraged to not be supportive of other women, to critique other women, but I think sisterhood is still powerful among feminists,” she said.
Thursday’s panel is part of the exhibition 1968: The Year that Rocked America, which is at the Heinz History Center through May 12th, and falls during Women’s History Month.