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Strong Women and ‘Mad Men’


Heather Arnet at one of many media interviews

You may have seen her on CNN or NBC with high school students who organized a “girlcott” of Abercrombie and Fitch, prompted by the retailer’s marketing of clothing with inappropriate messages about girls. Or you may have read about her work as a Director on the board of Pittsburgh Public Schools, which during her tenure passed legislation to decrease school bus diesel emissions, support a comprehensive, science-based sex education program, and implement a Title IX audit to ensure female athletics were receiving equal resources throughout the district.  Or you may have attended one of the plays she has directed that feature women’s voices.

That’s because Mt Lebanon resident Heather Arnet, well spoken, smart and passionate, is everywhere -  especially when it comes to promoting equality for women and girls. It is a mission that has called her ever since as a young girl her mother would take her to the library to find biographies of influential women.  Arnet is currently Chief Executive Officer of the Women and Girls Foundation (WGF) of Southwestern PA, a platform that gives her plenty of voice to make a difference.


Arnet notes that policies benefitting women also benefit the community.  For example, at WGF she worked with a coalition of 60 different organizations to mandate fair representation for women and people of color on public boards and commissions in the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.  (Prior to this effort, there were no public announcements of vacancies, and other flaws in the appointment process.) A fair and transparent process based on best practices, she says, “is not just good for women, but good government.”

As another example, in our region, women were not being advised they could pursue college degrees at the same time they were on public assistance. WGF made a grant to Just Harvest to help women understand they indeed had this right, and to help them access higher education.  “We wanted them to know,” Arnet explains, “that there were options for moving from a low-paying job to economic self- sufficiency through career advancement.”

Heather with Gloria Steinem

WGF advocates for policies that “level the playing field” for women, but it does not seek funds from the state legislature.  Arnet says this rare attribute gives her organization credibility and access that is unusual in Harrisburg.   In addition, WGF presents facts as its prime tool of advocacy.  For example, in the last 18 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 90% of the new jobs created (many of which were “shovel-ready” construction jobs) have gone to men.  Yet women held 80% of public sector jobs that have been cut during the same period.  Arnet makes sure legislators appreciate the impact of their decisions on women and families, as single female-led households with children still make up 75% of those households living in poverty in our country (and our region).

In addition to advocacy, Arnet’s work at WGF also involves providing grants to non-profit agencies to pursue policies that support women and girls in the exercise of their rights.   In 2004 when she started at WGF, total grants awarded amounted to $15,000.  Since then Arnet has increased the amount to nearly $1 million.

Between her tireless work for WGF and raising her son, Travis, with her husband David Shumway, Arnet directs about one play a year that features the female experience.   She first came to Pittsburgh from the Miami area to attend Carnegie Mellon University and received a degree in Literary & Cultural Studies and Drama in 1997. That is where she met David, who is now Director of the Humanity Center at Carnegie Mellon and a Board Member of the Dennis Theatre Foundation.

Heather with son Travis and husband David Shumway at the White House Christmas Party

Arnet has written and directed a play called “Yo’ Mama!,” on the joys and challenges of modern motherhood.  She last directed “Root,” a spoken word opera written and performed by artist and poet Vanessa German.  Both shows have been performed in Pittsburgh and in cities across the country.  Arnet is clear about the relationship between her advocacy for women and her directing: “I want to use theater to amplify women’s voices and engage communities in current issues impacting women.”

After being asked her opinion on how current dramas reflect on women, Arnet offered that Grey’s Anatomy has complex and non-stereotypical representations of women in the workplace who are all different from one another.   Women are not treated on this show as television has treated them in the past, she says; there are issues on the balance of work and family, along with issues such as gay marriage and parenthood.  She observes that in the season opener, one character had a second abortion.  That there was very little press about this episode is testament, she says, to the integrity and fairness of the show.  The character was not demonized, and retained the trait of being a caring person.

Arnet also thinks Mad Men has done brilliant and honest work on gender politics. Instead of romanticizing the sexism of the 1950s and 1960s, the show has evolved to ‘unwrap’ the female characters and reflect the emergence of the women’s liberation movement and its impact on the lives of both women and men.  For example, in the first season, the character named Peggy is a secretary; she has a college degree and wants to be a copywriter. By the sixth season, she achieves her goal by navigating a complex work environment and breaking down barriers.  “She did it without role models – she was the pioneer,” Arnet declares.  “The show features women who started out as wives and who explore different paths.  It’s not all about the guys.”

Heather Arnet and mother Eileen Brooks

The influence of Arnet’s mother, Eileen Brooks, on her life’s work is lasting.  On the aforementioned trips to the library, her mother was helping Heather find books for school assignments on famous composers, writers, and explorers.  Finding little in the children’s department, Brooks would walk young Heather over to the adult section where they discovered treasures like the biography of artist Georgia O’Keefe, founder of American Modernism.  Inspired, Heather began collecting books on women role models for the day she might have a little girl of her own.  As it turns out, she had a boy.  Arnet confides, “I remember saying to a friend, ‘What am I going to do?  I don’t know anything about boys, and I have this collection of biographies about girls!’ ” Her friend wisely replied, “So you’ll share the books with him.”

When she has time, Arnet enjoys yoga and pilates, as well as entertaining.  She is particularly fond of supporting women chefs, and savors the creations of the South Hills restaurant, Wild Rosemary, run by two women.  Among her favorite chefs is Danielle Cain, executive chef at Soba (in the Big Burrito group).   “Even in cooking,” Arnet notes, “once it gets professionalized, women tend to get scooted out of the kitchen.”

Someday Arnet plans a documentary on how women have ascended to the presidencies of several Latin American countries, most notably Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.  “It intrigues me,” says Arnet, “that traditionally ‘macho’ cultures have elected females to top positions and the U.S. has yet to elect a female president!”

Arnet’s work seems to have no boundaries.  One day she is in Harrisburg advocating for equal treatment for girls in high school athletics.  Another day she is at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater directing a play about how women survive violence and poverty.  And on yet another she is sponsoring projects led by girls that give girls ownership of their futures.  Maybe there are no boundaries because, although much has been accomplished, in the eyes of Heather Arnet there is still a long road ahead for women to achieve full equality.


Linda Tanzini Ambroso lives with her family in Pittsburgh’s South Hills and  is a consultant on education, security and government relations issues.  She is a frequent contributor to Wise Women.



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