In 1997, I became the first woman ever elected president of AFM Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh). In what was truly a freakish outcome, I took office with only 34 percent of the popular vote. The remaining 66 percent of the vote was split evenly between two guys, and it became increasingly apparent that all 66 percent would have cheerfully welcomed either guy as president – and that none of them wanted a woman president – especially a folksinging guitar player! I knew that some of the older women in the local had done some phone-banking on my behalf, but I didn’t really know these women. That would soon change.
Several female honor members called me to congratulate me, and to say that it was about time we had a woman president. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about them. The stories they told me were fascinating. I resolved to arrange some sort of event to record some oral history from these extraordinary women.
At one of the January Executive Board meetings I proposed that the local host a luncheon for our women honor members as part of Women’s History Month.
I was unprepared for the board’s initial response. “Women’s History Month? What’s that?” inquired one of the older members of the board. Another hipper member of the board replied, “It’s like Black History Month.” I shudder to think what he meant by that. Another E-Board member inquired, “When is Men’s History Month?” I joked that men’s history months were the other 11 months of the year – and the last 10,000 years. I tried to keep the discussion lighthearted, and eventually secured their agreement to host the event, so long as it didn’t cost the local any money.
I reserved the gorgeous art deco 17th floor ballroom of the Westin William Penn in downtown Pittsburgh. Besides its elegance, this ballroom was the scene of many formal dances where our members performed musical services. I sent out a fundraising request, offering to list donors in the luncheon program. (The response from Local 802 was most heartening.)
At the luncheon, I recruited Paula Thomas to interview her longtime sisters in the union. Paula was a music educator for many years at Shadyside Academy Junior School, and had also served as the narrator for the Tiny Tots and Little People’s Concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Some of the women spoke dismissively of their careers at first. Almost all of them spoke of the difficulty of balancing their musical careers with the demands of family. The more I learned of their lives, the more I was reminded of Ann Richards’ observation, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”
The women of Local 60-471 faced professional challenges that most men just didn’t have. Some never married because they felt they would have to stop performing. Several of them spoke gratefully of how their husbands “let” them perform. Many of them spoke of the loneliness they experienced. For the most part, these women did not know each other because most performing ensembles considered one woman more than enough. So while they replaced each other in ensembles, they seldom got to work together.
There were 34 women honor members of the local in 1997 and 16 of them attended the luncheon. While most of the regrets came from incapacitated and out-of state members, one of our honorees was unable to attend because she was still an active member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Orchestra and there was a matinee scheduled that day! We arranged to have flowers sent to her backstage. The women arrived dressed to the nines and in the company of their spouses, children and grandchildren.
A representative from the County Commissioners’ office presented the local with a plaque naming the day “Professional Women in Music Day.” And Doug Shields, now president of the Pittsburgh City Council, brought a proclamation from the mayor’s office honoring the women of our local and women’s history month.
Then the stories began. Organist Flo Spurrier told us that she made the spectacular gowns she performed in on a portable sewing machine – often while riding the trolleys to her engagements!
Julie Melman graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s (then Carnegie Tech’s) School of Music as a violin major in 1939. She was awarded a fellowship to study at the Franz Lizst Academy in Budapest. Hitler’s ascendancy cancelled her plans. Julie joked of being a “musical mercenary,” traveling statewide to fill the first chair in many regional orchestras. As she looked around the art deco ballroom she recalled a night she was to perform there. Like most of the women, Julie used public transportation to get to and from her gigs. Since women were expected to look glamorous in addition to playing well, most of them traveled not just with their instruments, but a garment bag containing their performing clothes. Julie spoke of the night she arrived at the ballroom to discover that her high heels were not in the garment bag. She quipped, “Knowing that show business involves a lot of illusion, I put on my lovely evening gown with my flat run-down walking shoes and never looked down – and I hope no one else did either!”
Our members were overjoyed to hear of the artistic successes of Delsey McKay, an alumna of Duquesne University and Juilliard, who had worked all over North America and Europe. She performed with Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, Edith Piaf, Mahalia Jackson and Erroll Garner, among others. Delsey had joined the union when it was still known only as Local 471, which was the African-American AFM local in Pittsburgh, before integration in 1966. Another member of the original Local 471 was Alyce Brooks. Alyce was board chair of Local 471 when Pittsburgh hosted the national AFM convention in 1962. Alyce had also been a member of AFM Local 208, the African-American local in Chicago before integration. She worked all over Chicago in the 50’s. Rubye Young Hardy, although quite advanced in age, reported that she was still playing the organ at a Methodist Church every weekend, Rubye studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In addition to her prodigious musical talent, Rubye was a union activist and served as secretary-treasurer of Local 471 until the merger with Local 60. She then served on the Executive Board of Local 60-471 for five years. All three women remained very active in the community on both musical and social justice issues, and helped to found the African-American Jazz Preservation Society in Pittsburgh.
The liveliest story of the day was shared by Jean Patterson and Regina Peterson. Regina was a talented accordionist who had traveled all over Europe with the USO when she was only 18 years old. She and her pal, violinist Jean Patterson, were a popular duo at parties and conventions. They got a call to perform at a trade show at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. Their employer manufactured an insulation product, and had a special request for Jean and Regina. They performed that evening at the trade show wearing high heels and bathing suits, seated on blocks of ice, with nothing separating them from the ice except a one inch thickness of the employer’s insulation product. Luckily, the insulation product worked.
Jean was 89 years old in 1997 and was still giving 35 lessons a week. She recalled how she was asked to play an extremely difficult piece when she auditioned for the union in 1936. The Carnegie Tech violin major played it with ease and was accepted into the union. She found out years later that the men were never given challenging audition pieces and they were still joking about the trick they had pulled on her at the audition. Jean said, “I guess I got the last laugh. I got into the union”
Honoree Rose Ressa kept her sense of humor too, even though, according to her, “No major symphonic orchestras would audition women. Northern symphonies wouldn’t let a woman in the door, unless it was in one door and out the other!” Rose ended up playing with the San Antonio Symphony, then the Dallas Symphony and then two seasons with the National Symphony Orchestra. It was hard not to be reminded of the wisecrack “A woman has to work twice as hard as a man to be thought of as half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.”
It was impossible not to conclude that a life in music is good for one’s health and humor. Most of these women were still leading very active lives in their 80’s and 90’s and still had detailed memories of their struggles and challenges. As the luncheon ended, these women were exchanging phone numbers and promising to stay in touch. All these women have died in the last fourteen years, but we benefit still from their leadership and their sacrifices. While more women have leadership positions in the AFM today, a perusal of the officers’ roster nationwide would still reveal a wide disparity. Women may hold up half the sky but they certainly don’t hold half the offices in this union.
Anne Feeney is a member of AFM Local 60-471 and AFM Local 1000. E-mail her at Anne@AnneFeeney.com.