Abortion rights are being challenged across the United States these days, frequent reports about income disparity between men and women still find place in the media and ‘Can Women Have It All?’ question does not want to disappear. Too often it may seem that our generation needs feminists of our own, feminists who are truly passionate about protecting women’s right and believe in the cause, who have the courage to take a stand, especially at those moments when it looks like, as a society, we are slipping back. There were several women in the history of Western Pennsylvania who would have preferred ‘history’ to be ‘herstory’ and who played an integral part in the greatest social movements of the century. Wilma Scott Heide was one of those ‘sheroes.’ She was brave, but soft-spoken, assertive, but persuasive. Her words and ideas had power, she made it seem heroic to be a feminist.
Wilma Scoot Heide was born in 1921, near Johnstown, Pa. She grew up in Connellsville and received her undergraduate and master’s degree in sociology from Pitt. In 1967, she organized the first National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in Pittsburgh and served as national NOW president from 1971 to 1974.
Wilma Scott Heide put a challenge to Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission in 1968: “Men have always been taught to be brave and women have always been taught to care. Now, men must be brave enough to care about the total quality, the interpersonal quality of our lives without fear of being called soft or effeminate. Women need to care enough to bravely assert our concerns about the quality of our common lives without fear of being called aggressive.”
She was always out there talking about women’s issues. “I do not refer to myself as a housewife for the reason that I did not marry a house,” she was quoted saying.
In 1969, First Pittsburgh, led by Wilma Scott Heide, filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations against The Pittsburgh Press, the leading local daily newspaper at that time. The complaint contended that the division by sex of the paper’s employment ads — “Male Help Wanted” and “Female Help Wanted” — amounted to discrimination against women. Wilma Scott Heide won the case, which was decided in 1973 by the Supreme Court of the United States in Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. The practice was determined to be discriminatory.
Her commitment to empower women improved the lives of many Pittsburgh women, not only in material, but in philosophical terms, she was a key player in formulating much of the ideology and tactics of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wilma Scott Heide pushed the envelope on freedom from predetermined expectation about what it means to be a woman or a man. “The only jobs for which no man is qualified are human incubators and wet nurse. Likewise, the only job for which no woman is or can be qualified is a sperm donor,” she said.
During the summer of 1976 she crossed the country in an “ERAmobile” to portray the leading figure of the early woman’s rights movement Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 19th century attire with a colleague who portrayed Susan B. Anthony, another pivotal leader in the suffragist movement.
Fighting against social injustices was Wilma Scott Heidi’s primary cause, tolerance and her ability to frame the conversation on the philosophical and ethical issues of the women’s movement was her ‘weapon.’ She was indeed a feminist, but her peacemaking efforts were aimed at creating an international community that transcended race, class and sex.
She died on May 8, 1985, at the age of 64.