Inspiring Women in Pittsburgh History

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Western Pennsylvania’s rich history is full of women who broke down barriers and made a lasting impact on the region and the world. Journalist Nellie Bly, conservationist Rachel Carson, jazz legend Mary Lou Williams, and the ever-inspiring character of Rosie the Riveter are just some of the powerful names whose influence extends far beyond the Golden Triangle.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we asked several Heinz History Center curators and archivists about the women in Pittsburgh history they admire most. Keep reading to learn about some of the local women who continue to inspire us today.

Pauline Wormser Frank pictured with three of her children.

Pauline Wormser Frank (1815-1910)

To me, some of the most fascinating women in Pittsburgh history are the early civic leaders who came here when this place was still a pretty hardscrabble community. They raised families and began building the city’s social, civic, and religious infrastructure from the ground up. They might not be nationally famous today, but they created the framework that allowed Pittsburgh to grow and prosper as a city.

One of these women was Pauline Wormser Frank (1815-1910).  A German Jewish immigrant who came to the United States during the wave of German migration in the 1840s, Pauline married fellow German Jewish merchant William Frank and eventually moved to Pittsburgh, where he ran a dry goods store and later built a glassworks. The Franks were among the first Jews to settle in Pittsburgh and were founding members of the first Jewish synagogue. A wonderful photograph in the Detre Library & Archives shows Pauline with three of the eight children she and William welcomed into the world; they would bury three of them in infancy.

In spite of such sorrowful losses, Pauline worked her entire life on behalf of charitable causes. Along with other Jewish women, she spearheaded the formation of a Ladies’ Relief Association during the Civil War as a branch of the Sanitary Commission, where they sought charitable contributions, wrapped bandages, and provided aid to Union soldiers. She continued this work after the war, part of a group that formed the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society, the city’s first Jewish charity organization. When she died in 1910, the Pittsburgh Gazette eulogized Pauline Frank as a woman “widely known” for her many benevolent works.

Leslie Przybylek, Senior Curator

Lois Weber, standing left, directs ballerina Anna Pavlova, in her only film, “The Dumb Girl of Portici,” 1916

Lois Weber (1879-1939)

I’ve always loved silent films and classic Hollywood movies. Imagine my delight when I recently discovered Lois Weber – the first American woman film director – and found out she was born and raised in Pittsburgh. On the surface, Lois was a mild-mannered Edwardian matron. She was well regarded throughout the industry and by the movie-going public. But in a film studio she was a powerhouse – writing scenarios, directing, acting, editing – a complete auteur. In the 1910s she owned her own production company and…

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