Pictures, Big and Small: Some Possibly Feminist Thoughts from a Borough in Pittsburgh

by Brigette Bernagozzi
Spring 2013

  I. Pictures, Big and Small

Thinking about the world specifically from the framework of being a woman always gets me thinking of the bigger picture. Lately, I have been following the disturbing events of the Ohio rape case. Also, I have had a few run-ins with misogynist characters this past month in nearby Pittsburgh, including a haughty man at the coffee shop that insulted collectively the intelligence of all women in my university community, clearly (and wrongly) thinking that berating my fellow women would make him look superior and appealing. Stunned (and no longer a very argumentative person in general—or trying hard not to be one, at any rate), I made it as clear as I could that I did not wish to date such a primitive thinker, though I didn’t elaborate much, wishing to cut off our conversation as soon as possible.

Still, this conversation bothered me for weeks. My surprise at the strange turn it had taken had kept me from fully speaking my mind. Whether or not he thought I identified with this community of educated women, why would someone think it is okay to dismiss an entire group of women based on no proof or experience with those women whatsoever, short of “living near the campus”? And why would someone think it is okay to transport an unconscious woman from party to party, treating her like a doll and showing no respect toward her, violating her body and her privacy? There are moments when I have to stop reading, listening, even reflecting on such events, or I know full well that one of two things will happen–either my old anger will come bubbling back up, or an old deep sadness will come instead. Both have something to do with being a woman in this world, and both I’ve worked hard to keep at bay over the years, with some moderate success.

Attending a Women’s Studies class this winter and spring reminded me of an earlier version of myself—a prouder and more argumentative version of me, to be sure, but also a more steadfast one than I can claim to be at the moment. A version of me that marched around Washington during the Bush years with a swollen thumb, wearing a black and white tee that read “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” (if you’re wondering about the thumb, this was after a twenty-or more hour bus ride during which I was stung by a wasp on the bus, which had no first aid kit available, but march on, I did). I walked confidently then, despite the thumb, and heard inspirational women speak that day in the Mall on Washington, and I was more certain then—as many teenagers and young twenty-somethings tend to be—that I knew everything I needed to know. Aging tends to undo this cockiness in most of us, I guess, as we see just how big the world is and begin to sense all that we don’t know, all that we’ll never be able to know. We have to be content to live with seeing only part of the Big Picture during our time here on earth.

Several years after that march in Washington, and after I had been out of that particular political loop for a while, I heard that one of the young ladies who had put the whole event together had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. I remember her a little, vibrant, dark-haired gal who was lively and passionate about her cause, and about life in general, a wide smile on her face as she herded us all onto the bus.

 II. A Pittsburgh Herstory

It seems only natural, as I sit in my backyard, considering whether or not I am a feminist, that I live in a borough named for the farmstead of Jane Swisshelm (1815-1884, according to Wikipedia). She was a super-progressive lady—an abolitionist, journalist and publisher—whose family owned land in the Swissvale and Edgewood neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, and who obtained a divorce from her husband and moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota to run a series of newspapers . She stayed politically active, writing scathing articles directed at politicians she felt were not nearly progressive enough, and later lived in D.C. She supported Lincoln, becoming a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln’s, and became a nurse in the Civil War, saving many lives. She died in Swissvale and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville.

One can find her resting place not too far from the grave of Henry Kendall Thaw (1871-1947)—a mentally ill, sociopathic playboy born in Pittsburgh (he attended Pitt before transferring), who murdered architect Stanford White atop Madison Square Garden in 1906 in a dispute over his own wife, Evelyn Nesbit. (His “Trial of the Century” is a pretty fascinating story in its own right.) Nesbit, a chorus girl and model raised in and near Pittsburgh, was encouraged as a girl by her father to read and was treated by him with respect and a distinct lack of sexism. Later in her life, however, she was mistreated and beaten by her husband Thaw, who was intent on ruining White’s life due to his jealousy and dislike of the man’s success as well as the previous liaison he’s shared with Evelyn. She had to testify in two of his trials, and it is said that his family bribed her to speak of him in a way that would award him the least punishment possible by the courts.

Though I had not heard of Jane Swisshelm before moving to Swissvale, I have long been intrigued by Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, since learning their story from the Broadway adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and also living in Mount Vernon, NY, where locals informed me that White designed several homes.

Thinking of these fascinating historical characters who possessed such strong (and sometimes bizarre, or even criminal) personalities makes me feel out of place in my own time, somehow. While these are folks who may have stood out as unusual and who did not necessarily “fit” with the norms of their own era, I will admit that I’ve long been obsessed with this era—with the political and social issues of women’s rights and prohibition from that long-ago time, with the culture of speakeasies and jazz music, with the sense that there was so much at stake in the activism and politics of that time. I find myself fascinated with Doctorow’s vision of women and their personal and political struggles in this era. (I know the score of the Broadway show by heart, and hearing Doctorow read from his work in Philly several years ago was pretty much the highlight of my year.) I’m already planning a trip to the Allegheny Cemetery, to see if I can conjure up any ghosts from the past as I wander about.

When I think of Jane Swisshelm herself, I can’t help but be impressed by all that she accomplished in her life. Jane certainly knew how to get it all done in a day’s work. She wrote while living in Pittsburgh and passionately supported women’s rights, which gives us something in common already. But beyond these basic commonalities that draw me to her legacy, it seems nearly impossible to me that a woman in her time could achieve as much as she did in so many different fields. She is certainly a woman, and a human being, to be admired—an example for women today who are still seeking their own place on the feminist spectrum, a kind of bright star whose influence has not yet burned out completely.

A version of this blog can also be found on my page at:
*See the Wikipedia pages about Jane Swisshelm, Evelyn Nesbit, and Henry Kendall Thaw, which helpfully provided me with historical information, for more about Swissvale, PA and the Trial of the Century.

Filed under: Prose