Carnegie Mellon University
November 03, 2020

Celebrating Suffragists in Western Pennsylvania

By Abby Simmons

Abby Simmons
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-6094

Barbara Johnstone, professor emeritus of English and linguistics, recently led the development of a free, online research guide for the Pittsburgh’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial, which commemorated the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The guide highlights key events and individuals involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Western Pennsylvania. It also places regional suffrage events and people in the context of the movement across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the nation.

In early 2019, City of Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto appointed a committee of local archivists, community activists and historians to make plans for a city-wide centennial celebration. As a volunteer at the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Pittsburgh-based Smithsonian affiliate, Johnstone took the lead on assembling the committee’s research guide.

“I got help from archivists at the History Center and at the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham, Carlow, and Duquesne Universities, Homewood Cemetery, and the City of Pittsburgh,” said Johnstone.

The History Center also reached out to its more than 125 affiliates – historical societies, museums and public libraries and a number of them also contributed citations. Web and library searches and in-person visits to several sites provided additional information.

“Most of the material I found related to Pittsburgh suffragists, especially the wealthy white women whose papers tend to end up in archives,” Johnstone said. “But some of the most enthusiastic participants in the project were people connected with public libraries and historical societies in smaller towns who happened to have some relevant material, and I was particularly interested in finding out something about what was going on in those places.”

For example, Johnstone wrote an article for Pennsylvania History, the journal of the Pennsylvania Historical Association, on suffragists in Jefferson County.

“The Jefferson County History Center had some great material about how women were taught about voting after the 19th Amendment passed, and a wonderful picture of the first female voter in that county, who was the oldest person living in Brookville at the time,” Johnstone said. 

The guide served as a springboard for several talks Johnstone gave over the past year, including presentations at the Pennsylvania History conference and a meeting of a local branch of the AAUW, as well as a virtual “Votes for Women” program with the Heinz History Center.