First Ladies of Western Pennsylvania

Submitted by CTHS on October 31, 2018 - 12:29 am
Jane Grey Swisshelm

Our last speaker’s program for 2018 is about important women in Western Pennsylvania, thus entitled First Ladies of Western Pennsylvania. For some reason, in current times, an important achievement by women is lauded as a great step for mankind, almost as if they never happen, like Halley’s Comet only occurring every 79 years, but in reality, women have been doing great things every day for 300 years in America and the same for Western PA. While behind the scenes nationally; John Adams and James Madison were mere statesmen without Abigail or Dolley. Other women were in front of the public such as Clara Barton in healthcare, Sally Ride in space exploration, and Maya Lin in design work. All of these women broke ground, some, hundreds of years ago, some, more recent; therefore it should not be surprising that current women, inspired by the achievements of past women, continue the tradition with their own achievements. Western Pennsylvania had its own First Ladies. Our speaker, Judy Sutton, from the Heinz History Center will talk about four such women; Jane Grey Swisshelm, Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell and Mary Lou Williams.

Jane Grey Swisshelm (December 6, 1815 – July 22, 1884) was an American journalist, publisher, abolitionist, and women's rights advocate. She was one of the first women journalists hired by Horace Greeley at his New York Tribune. Well-schooled, she was active as a writer in Pittsburgh. In 1839, against her husband's wishes, she moved to Philadelphia to care for her ailing mother. After her mother's death, she headed a girls' seminary in Butler, PA. Two years later, she rejoined her husband on his farm, which she called Swissvale, east of Pittsburgh, now called Edgewood.

In 1857, Jane divorced her husband, moved to Minnesota to become a publisher and editor in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she founded a string of newspapers and regularly wrote for them.

When Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the presidency, Swisshelm campaigned for him as she spoke and wrote in his behalf. As if all of that was not enough, later when the American Civil War began and nurses were wanted at the front, she was one of the first to help. After the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, she had charge of 182 badly wounded men at Fredericksburg for five days, without surgeon or assistant, and saved them all.

Late in life, Jane took a government job in Washington D.C. that she obtained with the help of a friend, former Pittsburgh attorney and then U.S. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

When Jane died, she was laid to rest at the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (May 5, 1864 – January 27, 1922), better known by her pen name Nellie Bly, was an American journalist and was born in Armstrong County. She began her career with the Pittsburgh Dispatch, even serving as a foreign correspondent in Mexico at age 21. Leaving Pittsburgh, without money, she hit New York and after several months, got a job within Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World. While there, she worked undercover to report on a mental institution for which she agreed to feign insanity. It exposed horrible treatment in a woman’s asylum. Still working for the New York World, she later became widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, in emulation of Jules Verne's fictional character Phileas Fogg. Traveling light, she took with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, and several changes of underwear. She was a pioneer in her field and launched a new kind of investigative journalism. Bly was also a writer, industrialist (working her late husband’s business, he was 42 years her elder), inventor, and a charity worker. The character of Lois Lane in Superman is based on Bly.

Ida Minerva Tarbell (November 5, 1857 – January 6, 1944) was born in Erie County and later lived in Venango County. she was an American writer, investigative journalist, biographer and lecturer. As a student, Tarbell graduated at the head of her high school class in Titusville and went on to study biology at Allegheny College in 1876, where she was the only woman in her class of 41. Due to her writings, she was recruited by a new magazine called McClure's. She was one of the leading muckrakers of the progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and helped pioneer investigative journalism. As she was born in Pennsylvania at the onset of the oil boom, and lived in the oil boom area, with family in the industry, Tarbell is best known for her 1904 book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. The book was published as a series of articles in McClure's Magazine from 1902 to 1904. This one masterpiece of investigative journalism would later bring about the dissolution of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil as a monopoly and lead to the Clayton Antitrust Act. Tarbell developed investigative reporting techniques, digging into public documents across the country. Separately, these documents provided individual instances of Standard Oil's strong-arm tactics against rivals, railroad companies and others that got in its way. They even put her father’s oil-related company out of business. Organized by Tarbell into a cogent history, the documents became a damning portrayal of big business. Her book would also lead to the Hepburn Act in 1906 to oversee the railroads, the 1910 Mann-Elkins Act which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission power over oil rates, and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914. A lot of change for the small guy caused by one underestimated woman.

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records. Williams wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie. Often, she played all night with some of these younger musicians as they would swap ideas playing and learn from her.

One of eleven children, Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A young musical prodigy, at the age of three, she taught herself to play the piano. At the age of six, she helped support her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing at parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven when she became known admiringly in Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl." She became a professional musician in her teens; aside from her playing skills, she had the skill of arranging songs for other musicians. At age 19, Williams was the arranger and pianist for recordings in Kansas City (1929), Chicago (1930), and New York City (1930). Soon after the recording session she played solo gigs and worked as a freelance arranger for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. Around 1937, Benny Goodman tried to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused, preferring to freelance instead.

In the 1940’s, she traveled with Duke Ellington and arranged several tunes for him. In the 1950’s she went to Europe to play and ended up staying two years. She then took a musical hiatus when she returned to the United States. She always helped her fellow musicians and during this time, she devoted her time mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. Rather religious, two Catholic priests and Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band.

Later in her life in addition to club work, she played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and made television appearances.

She accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981), teaching the History of Jazz and directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble. In 1978 she performed at the White House.

She was known as "the first lady of the jazz keyboard". Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz and although she traveled the world, upon her death, she was buried here in Pittsburgh.

Our speaker Judy Sutton, is a former librarian at the Mt. Lebanon Library. She is active at the Heinz History Center and aside from being a speaker, she is also a docent there.

Please join us and spend the day learning about these First Ladies from our area who changed the world. The meeting will be held in the Council Chambers of the Cranberry Township Municipal Center. We hope to see you on Sunday November 11th at 2:00 pm. Light refreshments will be served.

P.S. Maya Lin, referenced above, achieved national recognition at the age of 21 while still an undergraduate at Yale University, when her design was chosen in a national competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

P.S.S. On October 29, 2018, a woman named Ginni Rometty, a CEO, had her company buy another company for $34 billion dollars. You’ve never heard of her? Maybe women are just more modest! Now that is a First Lady! The First Lady of IBM.

Event Date
November 11, 2018 - 2:00 pm
Event Location
Council Chambers
Cranberry Township Municipal Center
2525 Rochester Road
Cranberry Township, PA 16066