January 25, 2016
By Nijah Glenn
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I’ve learned quite a bit about how different the local culture is from that of other cities. Firstly, I’m not quite sure I’ve ever been to another city where Pepsi products are so common I’ve actually gotten used to the disappointment of not being able to order a Coke. Sure, like any other city, Pittsburghers have their own distinct vocab and accent; not dissimilar from Yankees, Flyers, or Patriots fans, Pittsburgh sport fans are about their city and won’t hesitate to let you know. Not unlike other major cities, Pittsburgh has neighborhoods with strong ties to the immigrants that originally settled in them, and has undertaken more industrialization in the past few years. However, there are glaring flaws within Pittsburgh’s rapid growth, and one of them remains that it is stuck in the past in regards to its views on many social topics, especially women.
Let me preface this by saying I do not despise the city. There are plenty of wonderful things about it, and it is growing in ways its residents could not have dreamt of even five years ago. I may like Primanti’s and Super Bowl parties as much as the next girl, but we have to be unflinchingly honest in stating that Pittsburgh is not up where it could be in many ways. While the city is a bastion of social change in its area, Pittsburgh does not stack up to cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, or New York in terms of East Coast progressiveness. Rather, Pittsburgh is progressive in terms of its nearby neighbors (smaller, rural/mountainous communities with much homogeneity) and is more conservative than its fellow cities closer to the coast. Pittsburgh is a place stuck in the past like quite a bit of Pennsylvania. It’s not necessarily all on the shoulders of those in the Commonwealth: how many other states have rolling hills, farms on farms on farms, Amish country, mountains, fracking country, and cities all in one? Couple the size of the state to the population density, the polarity in population size, and the state’s autonomous homogenous communities together and you have the present day situation. Given that many who came to Pennsylvania settled in the biggest cities as a majority and pocket of people moved into smaller communities, the resistance to change comes from long-term isolation. More specifically, issues with social change and with feminism arise from the isolation and homogeneity of much of the state.
If you aren’t too familiar with the city beyond our diehard sports fans, Wiz Khalifa’s “Black And Yellow”, or our creation of the Big Mac and Heinz ketchup, I’ll help you out. The city’s origins are very detailed and interesting, but a quick summary is that industry and labor have always played a large role in the city from the early days of factories and meat packing warehouses to the coal mines and steel mills (from which the Steelers derive their name) to the current industry of fracking. These early industries preyed on the many Croatian, Polish, Irish, Italian, Slovakian, and other Central/Eastern European immigrants leaving their home countries in search of prosperity and (in some cases) to escape persecution. These groups came to the city, forming communities in which they could live and hold onto tradition, standing tall in a city offering them moderate opportunity. Additionally, African Americans who came to the area escaping the Jim Crow Southern states, or from other cities, were offered even less opportunity, and had to create their own safe spaces and neighborhoods while still facing racial persecution. Because of these beginnings, much of Pittsburgh is still very insular. It is not uncommon to find residents with roots four generations deep, or for people to live in the same neighborhood they were reared in. In some cases, Pittsburgh maintaining its past has been beneficial, but holding onto the roles of the past has hindered it. Because much of the city’s structure and reliance on the mills and the mines, women have long been barely regarded. Granted, this is the case for many cities; unlike Pittsburgh, those cities had major calls to feminism and action occurring even during the years of industrialization. Because much of the city’s history is very steeped in patriarchal values, women are still regarded with the historical mindset of very little importance placed upon them.
If I had a dollar from childhood for every time a classmate stated her only goal was to be a wife and mother, that her family would think less of her if she wanted to have a career, girls are supposed to give up their lives for their spouses and children, or that feminists were man haters, I could take a year off traveling and still pay for medical school outright. See why this is a problem? What is disturbing about these statements (aside from the content) is that every single girl I had ever asked about them said they were based in family values. Because the city has only really started to recover from its loss of the mills and industry during the Reagan years, its mentality became stunted there and is only beginning to recover. Many of the girls I know from the area are traditional in terms of gender roles, divorce, and women’s rights because they were raised not only in the area’s strong religious culture, but in its strong conventions of seeing girls as less than. Sure, STEM girls are rare enough, but mention of my major turns more heads in a room here than it does any other city I mention it in. Of course, abortion is a touchy issue, but unlike many large cities where protestors are widely disregarded, they carry much weight here because of the shame in having bodily autonomy. While these are not issues that only women here have, it is apparent that we still lag far behind in contrast to many cities.
Look around the city: despite seeing many women come and go, you see far more men in nearly every workplace. Many of our locks CEOs, CFOs, and business owners are men. Many of the doctors or professors you see with positions at the top of their division are male. Is this really because women are clueless or dont want to work? I think not, and to tell yourself otherwise is disingenuous. The truth is, women are dissuaded from being all that they can be and, in a patriarchal city, being a qualified woman still does not change that you are a woman and will never be an equal in the eyes of a sexist. The growing healthcare and technology industries in the area have begun to place more women and people of color in positions of power, offering a growing demographic change. However, we still have quite a way to go. We cannot place the responsibility of equity on these two industries alone, especially when there is still a lack of women in positions of power, such as local government. While many women are dissuaded from power and hate speech is thrown at them (notably Hillary Clinton) for pursuing power, we have to work towards a change in attitude. The demographics are changing, and should reflect the growing diversity of the city. Seeing the amount of prosperity that the city can have, yet knowing that it is locked out of reach for some of its residents due to unnecessary factors, is both insulting and disheartening.
Does this mean Pittsburgh is a garbage city? No, and some of the greatest technological and scientific achievements are a product of this city (ask your grandparents about the polio vaccine, which you can thank the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Jonas Salk for). Pittsburgh has some of the prettiest neighborhoods, communities where you can still find people who only speak Italian or Polish (despite living in the states since childhood), a multitude of universities, diverse local fare, and a booming arts scene. None of this, however, negates that in order for us to move forward we have to confront our past and work to rectify issues so that the city can grow and develop. Though one thing is for sure: no matter how much Pittsburgh changes, Pittsburghers will always be proud of the progress of their city…and Primanti’s cheese fries.