From rags to the mayoralty: the story of Sophie Masloff

Copies+of+%E2%80%9CSophie%3A+The+Incomparable+Mayor+Masloff%2C%E2%80%9D+are+displayed+at+Barbara+Burstin%E2%80%99s+book+launch+Wednesday+in+the+Cathedral.+

Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Copies of “Sophie: The Incomparable Mayor Masloff,” are displayed at Barbara Burstin’s book launch Wednesday in the Cathedral.

By Lucy Li, For The Pitt News

Growing up as a poor Jewish girl in 1920s Pittsburgh, Sophie Masloff seemed to have a hard future ahead of her — but her determination to improve her life as well as others’ would take her all the way to the mayoral seat.

Pitt history professor Barbara Burstin hosted a talk Wednesday in a Cathedral of Learning classroom about her new biography of the first Jewish and female mayor of Pittsburgh. Titled “Sophie: The Incomparable Mayor Masloff” and initially released in October 2019, the book explores Masloff’s childhood, her political career and her accomplishments as mayor.

Burstin said she wanted to find out how Masloff, a working-class woman who couldn’t afford to go to college, eventually made her way to the Pittsburgh mayoralty.

“It was a very improbable, unlikely journey, and yet there she was, she had become mayor,” Burstin said.

Although well-respected and praised, Burstin said she did not find much information about Masloff’s term as mayor in published historical materials. Even in books written by Pitt historians, Burstin said Masloff was barely mentioned at all.

“I was angry that men had written histories,” she said, “and women had generally been left out of those histories.”

According to Burstin, Masloff lost her father when she was five years old, and was 

raised by her mother alongside three other siblings. Masloff’s childhood was impacted by a City reeling from the financial difficulties of the Great Depression.

“Sophie’s mother would bring back two bananas and divide them between four children,” Burstin said. “Hunger was a reality.”

Growing up under these harsh circumstances, Masloff became passionate about politics. Shortly after graduating high school, she began working in 1938 as a clerk at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, and remained there for 38 years.

“Politics was her way out of the ghetto, to meet people, to get involved and hopefully get a job,” Burstin said.

With the 1968 assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ongoing Vietnam War, Burstin said it wasn’t the best of times, but Masloff thought she had something to offer and decided to run for City Council.

Masloff did not succeed in her first election — another woman, Amy Ballinger, was elected to the Council seat. But six years later, in 1976, when Ballinger left office, Masloff ran again and was elected to City Council.

After Masloff won re-election three times, she decided to try and run for the Council’s presidency in 1988, and won. But five months after she was elected president, then-Mayor Richard Caliguiri passed away from amyloidosis, a rare disease. Masloff became the City’s mayor due to Caliguiri’s passing.

As the City’s mayor from 1988 to 1994, winning the office in her own right in 1989, Masloff accomplished much during her mayoralty, including helping to stabilize the City’s finances.

She privatized numerous assets owned by the City, including the Pittsburgh Zoo, National Aviary, Phipps Conservatory and Schenley Park Golf Course. Masloff also played a leading role in creating the Allegheny County Regional Asset District, which divvies up half of the revenue collected by a 1% county-wide sales tax to libraries, parks and cultural centers.

Sworn in as the City’s mayor at the age of 70, Masloff passed away at the age of 96 on Aug. 17, 2014.

Burstin also mentioned multiple times during her talk that Masloff was a very popular mayor, having many friends who were lawyers and worked in the City Council for her. After Masloff retired from her position, many of them left as well.

Although Burstin spoke to an audience of about 15 at Wednesday’s talk, many attendees had a personal connection with Masloff. Former Pitt music teacher Sharon Davison said her mother graduated around the same time as Masloff from Fifth Avenue High School in Uptown.

“Masloff was a very outstanding woman in our community, I have known her since I was a little girl,” Davison said. “My mother spoke very highly of Sophie, we were very proud to have her in our community.”

Davison added that she admired Masloff as a genuine and authentic person, and a strong politician.

“She meant what she said,” Davison said. “She did what she said, she was the real deal.”

Burstin said Masloff never forgot the struggles of the people she grew up around.

“She was a blue-collar, and she was proud of that,” Burstin said, “She was a woman of the people.”

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