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Women's History Month

Cocktail-Shaking Up Carnegie's Men

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Carved into a frieze atop the Carnegie Library and Museums is a roll call of the "principal writers of the world" along with the "masters of art and science," according to a souvenir booklet distributed in 1895 at the building's dedication.

 

"A useful and instructive form of decoration," the program notes approvingly.

 

Instructive, perhaps; inclusive, not so much. To the Ladies for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (who combine a social-drinking club with women's history lessons that go down easy), it was no surprise that all the 100-plus names belong to men. The vast majority of the ancient men enshrined atop the Carnegie are Europeans, joined by a few Americans. Predictably, they're all white, and some have grown pretty obscure in the last 100 years. Legend has it that each of the names was approved by Andrew Carnegie himself, who not only opted for men but had certain ideas about the women depicted in men's art. As noted on the Carnegie Library's Web site, the steel baron nixed Peter Paul Rubens as "a painter of fat, vulgar women."

For Women's History Month this March, LUPEC members undertook their most ambitious project to date: publicizing the female contemporaries of Carnegie's "great men." During much of the month, the names were displayed in Downtown's Skinny Building.

 

LUPEC's rules for choosing these "great women": They must have been doing pretty much the same thing, in the same place, and at the same time as the men enshrined on the Carnegie. This ruled out not only the 20th century's post-feminism heroines but the women who made their names after the last century's suffrage movement.

 

Despite the constraints of time, place and Carnegie's personal tastes, says LUPEC member Jennie Benford, it wasn't hard to comb European history, especially in art and music, for some worthy women, including many who were well known and even well paid in their own time.

 

In a few cases, the name stays the same. Composer Robert Schumann's wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, was a composer and virtuoso pianist herself whose works are still performed. Other LUPEC choices include English writers Mary Astell, Mary Collier and Aphra Behn, and, among the ancients, Greek poet Sappho and Arabian poet Khansa.

 

Despite the lack of male pirates among the engraved male monikers -- some would say Christopher Columbus comes close -- LUPEC included Irish woman pirate Granuaile O'Malley, who roamed the seas in the 16th century. Some contemporary figures were too perfect to leave out. As a counterpart to Benjamin Franklin, LUPEC nominated another inventor and shrewd businessperson, Bette Nesmith Graham, a thwarted-artist-turned-secretary and single mom in the 1950s who whipped up the first batch of "Mistake Out" in her blender, giving birth eventually to Liquid Paper. (She also gave birth to a member of the Monkees). With word processing on the horizon, she sold the business just months before her death in 1980, but not before founding two feminist think tanks.

 

 "How often do you hear those three words together?" says Benford.

LUPEC's names, and some of their histories: www.lupec.org/names; Andrew Carnegie's: www.clpgh.org/locations/pennsylvania/history/carnames.html.

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