50th Anniversary of the Historic Passing of Ordinance #395

August 16, 2019

On July 7th, 2019, the In Sisterhood Project celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the historic passing of Ordinance #395—an event which cemented Pittsburgh’s place in the women’s movement. The event premiered the “Changing the Want Ads” documentary. “Changing the Want Ads” chronicles the inspiring legislation and subsequent litigation that led Pittsburgh to become one of the most radically gender equitable cities in the United States.

In 1969, Pittsburgh City Council passed a law explicitly banning several forms of pervasive sex discrimination. The legislation, known as Ordinance #395, prohibited discrimination against women who were seeking education, employment, and housing. Furthermore, the expansive law made it illegal to “aid, incite, compel, coerce or participate” in sex discrimination. The law was novel at its time, banning even the participation in discrimination executed by others.

Ordinance #395 faced its first test at the hands of local feminists, attorneys, and the Human Rights Commission. The Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Organization for Women (“NOW”) filed a complaint regarding the gendered segregation of the Pittsburgh Press’ want ads. The ads were presented in two categories—male interest jobs and female interest jobs. The presentation of employment as gendered was a transparent violation of Ordinance #395, it influenced women to perceive that they were suitable for a limited scope of employment. However, the Pittsburgh Press pushed back against NOW and refused to change their policy. Subsequently, the Human Rights Commission brought suit against the Pittsburgh Press. The Pittsburgh Press continually appealed rulings against them until the case was brought in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in March of 1973.

Judge Eugene B. Strassburger III, whose grandfather was a founding partner of Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Gefsky, argued on behalf of the city, asserting that “the advertiser is discriminating, and the newspaper is aiding that discrimination.” Representing NOW, storied Pittsburgh civil rights attorney, Marjorie Matson argued that the ads were “designed to keep a woman in her place.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled against the Pittsburgh Press, in a 5-4 decision. The Court found that the newspaper was aiding discrimination, in direct violation of Ordinance #395. The opinion states that “an advertiser whose want ads appears in the jobs-male interest column is likely to discriminate against women in his hiring decisions.” The decision, in this case, became a national precedent in support of the women’s movement for advancement.

As the struggle against gender discrimination rages on, the influence of Ordinance #395 continues to inspire progress in our city’s empowerment of those who identify as women. Most recently, Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed a bill, introduced by City Councilwoman Erica Strassburger, to include LGBTQIA+ protections into the expanse of Ordinance #395’s anti-discrimination protections.”