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Local Women Made Impact on World History

McKeesport-area pioneers remembered during Women’s History Month

By Vickie Babyak
The Tube City Almanac
March 26, 2024
Posted in: History, McKeesport and Region News

(Tube City Almanac photo illustration)

Since 1987, the United States has celebrated March as “Women’s History Month,” and the Mon-Yough area has plenty of local women who have made their own marks on world history.

Some of them have familiar names to local residents — Helen Richey’s name graces a baseball and softball field at Renziehausen Park. Some of them — like Olympian Swin Cash — are known around the world.

Many are less well-known, though no less important or fondly remembered.

Women’s History Month — which is now celebrated around the world — has its origins as “International Women’s Day,” celebrated on March 8. The day was created in 1910 to highlight the struggle for equal rights for women, including the right to vote.

Then-President Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation for International Women’s Day in February 1980 and encouraged the acknowledgement of women's historic accomplishments throughout “Women’s History Week” during the first week of March.

In 1981, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, and U.S. Rep. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, co-sponsored a joint congressional resolution, asking then-President Ronald Reagan to issue a proclamation for the people of the United States to celebrate Women's History Week.

The National Women's History Project successfully petitioned Congress to expand the celebrations and in March 1987, the federal government designated March as Women’s History Month.

Each year, the NWHP sets a theme for Women’s History Month. The theme for 2024 is “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.”

Helen Richey

Helen Richey was born Nov. 21, 1909, in McKeesport, the daughter of Joseph and Burdette Richey. She was a pioneering female aviator and the first woman to be hired as a pilot by a United States commercial airline.

A 1927 graduate of McKeesport Area High School, she was one of the few teenage girls in McKeesport that wore pants. She learned how to fly a plane when she was 20 and her father, superintendent of the McKeesport school district from 1902 to 1935, bought her a small biplane after she obtained her pilot’s license.

In 1929, she became the first licensed female pilot in Allegheny County. In 1933, she and her flying partner, Frances Harrell Marsalis, set a women's fueling endurance record of 237 hours and 42 minutes above the city of Miami in their airplane, dubbed the “Flying Boudoir.”

In 1936, Richey was the first to fly a Class C light plane at a speed of seventy-seven miles per hour, and she also set a record for highest altitude for planes less than 440 pounds, flying at 18,000 feet.

Richey flew with Amelia Earhart in the 1936 Bendix race and risked her life by reaching outside of the plane to shut a door that had been forced open by strong winds during a storm. She was determined to complete the flight.

In 1940, she became the first woman to earn her pilot instructor’s license and trained pilots after joining the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in 1942. Sadly, after World War II, Richey found it difficult to get work as a pilot. She died in New York City from a fatal overdose in 1947.

Learn more about Helen Richey

Phyllis “Phyl” T. Garland

Phyllis “Phyl” T. Garland was born Oct. 27, 1935, in McKeesport, the daughter of Percy A. and Hazel Hill Garland. She was a journalist and music critic known for her contributions to arts journalism. She was the first female faculty member to earn tenure at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Garland’s father was one of the first Black men with a career in industrial photography. Her mother was the first Black woman to edit a nationally circulated publication and was editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Courier from 1974 to 1977.

Garland graduated from McKeesport Area High School in 1953. She attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and studied in the Medill School of Journalism, graduating with a Bachelors of Science In Journalism.

In 1958, Garland was a reporter and then the editor for the Pittsburgh Courier. She covered the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Movement, housing discrimination, education, labor, and the arts.

From 1965-1969, she worked at Ebony Magazine as an assistant, and then associate editor, and in 1971, she went on to become the New York editor of Ebony. In 1969, she was the author of The Sound of Soul, a comprehensive book on Black music, and for 20 years was a contributing editor for Stereo Review. She died in 2006.

Learn more about Phyllis Garland

Lenora Mandella

(Photo courtesy All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Lenora Mandella was born May 4, 1931, in McKeesport, the daughter of Andrew and Mary Yawnlis Mandella. She was a pioneer in women’s baseball, and played shortstop and pitcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — the league made famous by the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.”

Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, financed the AAGPBL when men were called to serve in World War II. The league continued after the war. Mandella was an accomplished baseball player and local duckpin bowler, and in 1949, she attended a tryout for the AAGPBL in Renzie Park.

After tryouts, she was sent on a trip to South Bend, Ind., for spring training. In 1949, she played for the South Bend Blue Sox. In 1950, she played for the Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies; in 1951, the Peoria Redwings; and in 1952, she played again for the South Bend Blue Sox. She earned her nickname “Smokey'' in 1951 when she fired a “hot'' fast ball and pitched a 1-hitter for the Peoria Red-Wings.

According to her good friend, Norma Dearfield, “she had a pretty good arm.”  On November 6, 1988, Smokey was inducted into the women's section of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. She worked for the Glasshouse in Glassport, Operating Engineers Local 66 Insurance Fund in Monroeville, and Copperweld until she retired. She died in 2005.

Learn more about Lenora Mandella

Norma Whitney Dearfield

(Photo courtesy All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Another athletics pioneer, Norma Whitney Dearfield was born in McKeesport in 1928, the daughter of James and Nora Whitney, and played second base in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,

Whitney saw an ad in the newspaper for the All-American tryouts being held in McKeesport’s Renziehausen Park. Out of 150 girls, she made the cut and was sent to South Bend for another tryout. After making the cut again, she was assigned to the Chicago Colleens for their barnstorming tour. She played second base, batted second, and was praised for her base-stealing ability.

In 1949, Whitney played for the Chicago Colleens and then in 1950, she played for South Bend as a second baseman. She later coached girl’s softball teams in her hometown. but suffered an eye injury that ended her professional career after two years. She married Duane E. Dearfield in 1952 and together they had four children.

Learn more about Norma Dearfield

Bette Ford

Bette Ford was born in McKeesport in 1927 as Harriet Elizabeth Dingeldein. She is a retired actress, model, and matador. Ford and her brother were raised by relatives after being abandoned by their parents. She was the first American woman to fight on foot in the Plaza México, the world's largest bullfight arena. In 1954, Warner Bros made a documentary short about her training, titled Beauty and the Bull.

She graduated from McKeesport Area High School, and shortly after, in 1945, she began her career as a model and actress in New York, where her modeling credits included stints as The Jantzen Bathing Suit Girl, The Camay Bride and The Parliament Cigarette Girl, and included appearances as a regular on The Jackie Gleason Show and The Jimmy Durante Show.

In a 2007 interview with Mary Niederberger, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ford shared information about her life and career. “I always wanted to be important,” she said. “I figured if I could do that, I can prove that women can be beautiful and do a man's job and that was really my whole bent about bullfighting.”

Ford’s acting credits include feature films like Honkeytonk Man (1982) the Clint-Eastwood-directed Sudden Impact (1983) Valley of the Sun (2011) and television series including Cheers, L.A. Law, Melrose Place, and Felicity. Her voice can be heard in The Animatrix, the companion animated DVD of the film trilogy The Matrix, and numerous commercials.

Learn more about Bette Ford

Swin Cash

(Photo courtesy WNBA)

Swintayla Marie “Swin” Cash Canal, born 1979, is the daughter of Clifford C. Hunt Jr. and Cynthia Cash. She was raised by her mother Cynthia, and has two brothers and one sister. She grew up in Harrison Village as a self-described “skinny, bow-legged girl with a dream about playing basketball.”

Cash graduated from McKeesport Area High School, where in addition to basketball, she pursued baseball, track, and cheerleading, and had a passion for drama class, which she expressed by taking part in school plays. Following graduation, she attended the University of Connecticut, where she was an all-American and helped lead the Huskies to an undefeated 39–0 season in 2002.

Upon her graduation from UConn, Cash was drafted by the Detroit Shock of the WNBA as the second overall pick in the first round. She led the Shock to their first WNBA Championship title in 2003 and later earned gold medals as part of the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball teams in 2004 and 2012.

Following her 2016 retirement as a player, Cash became the vice-president of basketball operations and team development for the WNBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. The founder of the “Cash for Kids Foundation,” she holds basketball camps and clinics and is involved in charity events throughout the country.

Away from the court, Cash and her husband, Steve Canal, are raising two sons, Saint and Syer Cash-Canal. According to Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, Cash has more than lived up to the promise of her first name, Swintayla, which means “astounding woman” in Swahili.

Learn more about Swin Cash

Vickie Babyak is a photographer and freelance writer from Dravosburg. She may be reached at vbabyak@yahoo.com.

Originally published March 26, 2024.

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