“Equal Rights for Women- Now is the Time”: The Business & Professional Women’s Club of Pittsburgh and the Equal Pay Law

Among those hidden collections recently processed under the NHPRC’s Basic Processing Grant is the Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Club of Pittsburgh Records. The scrapbooks, correspondence, club histories, meeting minutes, awards, club rosters and member records that comprise this collection reveal an enthralling firsthand account of the BPW’s efforts to advocate for and support women in Pittsburgh’s workplaces.

Interestingly, the advent of the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation can be traced to the mobilization of women’s labor during World War I. With grant funding, the United States War Department moved to establish a Women’s War Council. This council was charged with the mission to aggregate and assess the resources of professional women in the country. As a direct consequence of this council, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs was created on July 15, 1919. This federation was incorporated as the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation in 1956. The Business and Professional Women’s Foundation became the first foundation dedicated to researching and purveying information on working women.

Members of BPW Pittsburgh attending "Summer outing at the Meadows," 1965.

Members of BPW Pittsburgh attending “Summer outing at the Meadows” in July 1965.

The Pittsburgh chapter of Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Club was established in April of 1924 under the leadership of Edith (Eda) Kann, the club’s first president. At its founding, the Pittsburgh BPW club consisted of 123 members. The BPW of Pittsburgh adopted a four-part mission: to raise the standards of women in business, to promote the interest of business and professional women, to foster a spirit of cooperation among professional women across the United States, and to encourage education in “industrial, scientific, and vocational activities.”

In adherence to the club’s mission, members often enjoyed educational presentations at membership meetings on topics such as investment strategy for women, women’s role in politics, and self-defense. BPW Pittsburgh members also often frequented social and cultural events together, in some cases attending performances that featured fellow members. In addition to educational and social events, the Pittsburgh BPW also coordinated annual activities that promoted the place of women in the workplace. One such celebration was National Business Women’s Week.

Salute to National Business Women's Week at the Penn-Sheraton Hotel, 1965.

Salute to National Business Women’s Week at the Penn-Sheraton Hotel, 1965.

Outside of its educational and philanthropic activities, the Pittsburgh BPW also cultivated an active civic life. Headed by the club’s legislative committee, Pittsburgh BPW members were often encouraged to take action and write their congressmen in support of legislation that advanced women’s place in society, such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Fair Employment Practices Bill.

Beginning in 1943, the BPW Pittsburgh set out to eradicate wage discrimination between men and women in the workplace. Joining together with other women’s clubs across the state, BPW Pittsburgh members labored to bring the Equal Pay Law to a vote in the state legislature. Guidance and leadership in this legislative endeavor was provided by BPW Pittsburgh member, Mary Clark Myers. Beyond her professional work as a financial secretary for the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Myers embraced an active civic life in Republican politics. Serving as the club’s first legislative chairwoman, Myers led fellow members in their efforts to forge this legislation into reality.

Mary Clark Myers

Mary Clark Myers

By 1947, it initially seemed as if the women of the BPW were finally witnessing the fruition of their efforts. However, it quickly became apparent that the legislation passed by the Pennsylvania legislature lacked the necessary thrust of enforcement. The BPW Pittsburgh and its fellow advocacy groups could only claim a Pyrrhic victory.

Members continued on in their pursuit of an equal pay law by discussing the legislation at length during monthly meetings. In January of 1950, the BPW Pittsburgh invited Adda Lutz Ferguson, chairman of the Pennsylvania Branch of the National Women’s Party, to give a presentation entitled “Equal Rights for Women- Now is the Time.” In addition, members persistently contacted their local representatives in an effort to drive the law forward. Throughout the course of their crusade for an enforceable equal pay law, Myers also engaged in speaking opportunities in order to bolster the ranks of those women supporting legislative reform. In these presentations, Myers exposed the shortcomings of the 1947 legislation and urged women to lobby for new legislation.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1960, the Equal Pay Law finally passed in the state of Pennsylvania. Unlike its predecessor, this law set forth a more stringent means of enforcement against those who practiced wage discrimination based on sex. The federal government followed suit with similar legislation in the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Mary Clark Myers passed away in 1965. To honor and commemorate her leadership efforts in this struggle for equal compensation, the BPW Pittsburgh established the Mary Clark Myers Education Fund to support the educational aspirations of young women in Western Pennsylvania.

Although BPW Pittsburgh members relished the victory, evidence shows that this battle undertaken by professional women across the state is not finished. According to an op-ed piece published in a June 2013 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a study undertaken by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) demonstrated that injustices surrounding wages between sexes persist today. As Betty Hooker of the AAUW states that, according to national statistics, “Among all women working full time in 2011, women were paid 77 cents on average for every dollar paid to men.”

For those interested in learning more about the legacy of the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Pittsburgh, the collection’s finding aid is available. This archival collection vividly documents the BPW Pittsburgh and its activities to advance the place of women in our city’s workplaces.  Access to the collection is open to researchers who visit the Detre Library & Archives of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

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