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Edited by Paola Corso and Nandia Ghosh
(Routledge Press, 2007)


From Paola Corso’s Introduction


I wore my usual “river rat” apparel, an old bathing suit top with cutoffs and tennis shoes, my college friend a new bikini despite me telling her the river cove where I swam was very different than her pool and suntan scene. I led the way down the rocky bank and dove in. She surveyed the chalky waters and asked me with some trepidation if there were many fish in there. I knew she was used to water so clean and clear, she could see her polished toenails. I shook my head. "Never saw one before.” After some coaxing, she plugged her nose and took the plunge reluctantly.


Some years later, I became a reporter for a Pittsburgh-area newspaper and wrote an investigative article about contaminated tap water that had caused several communities in the Pittsburgh area to go without it for nearly two weeks. I was not so sure I would drink spigot water again let alone dip as much as my big toe in the river. It all started with freshwater clams clogging the water system at the steel mill along the Allegheny River where the town also drew its water supply. The company requested permission from the state to use a chemical to kill them. When it did not get an answer in a month’s time, it interpreted that as tacit permission to use it, but that was not the case.


I also dug up some background information on the rivers and learned they were once filled with so much industrial waste that the water often reached temperatures of 130 degrees or more and was acidic enough to corrode the metal parts of a steamship boiler. I knew then what I could have said at the cove to convince my college friend there probably wasn't a fish in sight: Pittsburgh rivers were so polluted, most species were killed off. Yet it had never occurred to me that I may have been putting my friend’s and my physical health at risk by swimming in them.


In a book of poems, (Corso 2004), I came to explore the course of development and its consequences in Pittsburgh river towns, the human toll exacted on a vanishing blue-collar class and the environmental degradation from industry. I had read a book of essays edited by Joel A. Tarr (2003) and learned about the environmental past of Pittsburgh. The rivers were the back alleys of industry for so long that people moved as far from the riverbanks as they could. Even in the 1950s, parents told their children to "be home by dark and stay away from the rivers." In the '70s, probably half of the streams and rivers were fouled by acid mine drainage and industrial waste. Even in the early '80s despite the Clean Water Act, a federal law regulating the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cited Pittsburgh rivers and streams as among the most polluted in the country with toxic chemicals suspected or known to cause cancer. (Shabecoff 1981: 13)


And if that were not enough, I read that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pittsburgh had the highest typhoid fever mortality rate of any city in the nation because raw sewage was dumped in rivers that also supplied drinking water. As Tarr sums up, "Those who couldn't afford to buy bottled water continued to drink filth." (2003, Preface XI) Eventually, the city began operating a plant to filter and chlorinate the water, so the typhoid rates dropped. But the government continued to allow the discharge of raw sewage into the rivers until 1958. (Hopey 2004: A-15)


Although water quality improved in the late ‘70s and ‘80s with the closing of steel mills, a major source of industrial pollution, even now the city has problems with water pollution every time it rains hard. The sewer pipes cannot hold both waste and storm water, so raw sewage enters the river on wet weather days. Allegheny County’s health department issued water pollution warnings on 37 percent of the days in the recreational boating season from 1994-2001. (Tarr 2004:10) Furthermore, a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University has concluded that it could cost up to $10 billion to rebuild the region’s water treatment system—money that Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh do not have. (Cohon 2002:3)


When I returned home for a visit a few years ago, I got the urge to see my childhood home and walk in the woods behind our backyard that led to the river where I swam. This was the place where friends and I collected leaves and rocks for science projects, where we came of age. We swung on the bull ropes to feel our menstrual pads rub against the knot or take the plunge in the water.


Little did I know I was playing by a toxic waste dump and park area near the Allegheny River that would be placed on the EPA's Superfund national priority list of the most hazardous sites in the country in need of cleanup. Tons of pesticide had seeped into the soil, contaminated the groundwater and leaked into the river, and yet the company who owned the property was fined for its six-month refusal to grant the EPA access for cleanup. (EPA 1999:1) All I thought back then was that our thick, lush woods kept everything a secret and the river would wash us clean.


My sister warned me, though, that since they bulldozed the woods to clean up the toxic waste dump, I would be able to see clear to the river. This I could not imagine, but as I walked along the side to the backyard, the only way I could get my bearings was recognizing pieces of the old barn foundation near where the woods once began.


I wondered if anybody new to the area was aware of this history. And what would it matter if they were when they could look out to tender saplings, to a wide river that sees beyond? As I walked back there, all I saw was a naked river once clothed in emerald green, and I too felt exposed. And vulnerable, knowing what I know now about water and air pollution levels in Pittsburgh and how friends of mine in the area got breast cancer as grown women yet these sisters have no history of it in their family. According to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), since the National Cancer Institute concludes that only one in 10 cases of breast cancer is caused primarily by gene defects we get from our parents, then this means that 90 percent of breast cancer has environmental causes, including exposure to contaminants in water and air. (UPCI brochure: 2)


But the region’s tradition of activism was labor-based, not environmental. It dates back to the Battle of Homestead in 1892 when 3,800 workers at the steel mill were locked out after they threatened to strike for higher wages and on up to the efforts to save the Dorothy Six blast furnace in the mid ‘80s when by then 100,000 manufacturing jobs were lost and mills were closed down one by one. (Massy, S. 1996: A-18) I wore my Mill Hunk Herald softball uniform with pride on the ball field and in a local bar when my teammates and I shared a pitcher after the game. And when our coach Larry Evans—a former steelworker, labor activist, and founder of this worker newspaper—wasn't recapping the game and saying how we needed to get the refrigerator off our backs when we ran, he was probably talking about strikes and lockouts and organizing.


Unions fought to save jobs, not the rivers. These jobs were not just about income to support a family, but emblems of manhood. Pittsburgh was a city whose legends were big strong men who could get the job done like defensive lineman “Mean” Joe Greene, a member of the football team’s “Steel Curtain” and an icon for a working- class man.


Take an old Mill Hunk folklore figure Joe Magarac who was born in an iron ore mine. Made of steel, he had arms the size of smokestacks and produced rails by combing his hands through molten steel, working 24 hours a day. When his true love ran off with another man, he went back to his beloved mill and worked so hard that he made too many rails and the surplus forced the mill to shut down. He was so distraught at the thought of not being able to work that he threw himself into the fire. (Gilley and Burnett 1998: 394)


Now Joe's legend may very well have been a company creation to send the message to laborers—work yourselves to death. Nonetheless, this was the pressure put on these men, and society's way of perpetuating sexist stereotypes that it was a man's job to bring home the paychecks and if he didn't, he was worthless. In fact, the suicide rate was twice the national average in some parts of the Pittsburgh area by the mid ‘80s. (Thompson 1985: 39)


It took a Pittsburgh-area woman, marine biologist Rachel Carson, to pioneer environmental activism and a responsibility to take care of the earth, clean up the water, air and land pollution. And in my new edition of Silent Spring (Carson 1962), an introduction by Al Gore notes that when the book came out in 1962, major chemical companies tried to suppress it, accusing Carson of being emotional and hysterical, words that reinforced sexist stereotypes. The media and others tried to discredit her as a scientist by referring to her as "a priestess of nature." (Gore 1994: xvi)


To some degree, the environmental dynamics in Pittsburgh remain unchanged. Samuel P. Hays examines Pittsburgh’s environmental culture through the lens of class, gender and power politics, concluding that though industry's heyday in Pittsburgh is gone, the power of its legacy continues to stifle environmental activism and a commitment to corporate responsibility. (Hays 2003: 193-221)


Environmentalists in Pittsburgh tell me that every so often an old-school labor activist may still accuse Carson of taking away factory work, believing that more stringent environmental regulations eliminated blue-collar jobs and created new ones for lawyers and paper pushers. They question how a good union man could pal around with environmentalists? After all, as one campaign poster proclaimed, ‘Save our asses, not the whales.’ And in a satirical paradigm, an explanation of the schism is simple. Men make the mess and women tell them to clean it up. Corporate officials may have thought of activists like Carson as nagging wives who harp on as if they were asking their husbands to pick up their dirty clothes and put them in the laundry. If only she were talking about a pair of stinky socks.


But environmentalists in Pittsburgh, men and women, know better now, and recent Earth Day news headlines such as "Some Allegheny country streams, rivers still far from meeting pollution standards" and "Pennsylvania has miles and miles of dirty rivers and streams" (Hopey 2005) reinforce the need for a continued collaboration between labor unions and environmentalists.


Carson’s legacy for social change continues and women are at the forefront of environmental advocacy in Pittsburgh. Dr. Devra Davis, who heads The Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, was among the speakers at a recent conference in Pittsburgh, “Women’s Health & The Environment: New Science, New Solutions.” Teresa Heinz, who is recognized as a premier environmental leader and advocate of women’s issues, sponsored the event and gave its opening address. There’s Sister Mary Louise Nash, founder and director of the Chimbote Clean Water Project in Peru, and project volunteer Roberta Zolkowski. And in this Centennial year for Rachel Carson, The Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham College is celebrating its most distinguished alumna by organizing events to promote the role of women as environmental leaders and the impact of environmental issues on women worldwide.


The efforts of all of these Pittsburgh women acknowledge the link between women, their physical health, their rights and water politics, and that is what Nandita and I aspired to do in this special issue. However, it was not initially obvious to us that this project should focus on women. All we knew was that an Italian-American, working- class poet with a Pittsburgh accent and an Indian scholar and university professor who speaks impeccable English really do have something in common. Much to our surprise, it's water. Though our pronunciations of the word may be different, our passion for this life source and recognition of the politics connected to it are the same. Me as a Pittsburgh “river rat” turned investigative reporter and poet and Nandita with her involvement in student activism here in the U.S., mobilizing support against the construction of the Maheshwar dam on the River Narmada. As a part of an international network of support for the grassroots movement Narmada Bachao Andolan, she, along with many others, protested the environmental damage and human displacement megadams would cause along the river banks and basin.


Because we come from very different points of departure and confront the politics of water from our own impulses, we knew this special issue should bring together writers of various genres, disciplines, nationalities, races, classes and cultural experiences. But why a women’s focus?


Consumers International (CI), which represents consumer organizations in 115 countries, officially made the link between women and water on International Women's Day in 2004 when it announced that water is a consumer right and that women are in the forefront of needing and securing that right. (Sanjay 2004) For their bodies, for their selves, and for their families. The CI report referred to a United Nations study that found that nearly 70 percent of the world's poorest people with no access to clean water and sanitation are women and girls.


Poor women in Africa and Asia walk an average of six kilometers a day to collect water. Poor rural women in developing countries may spend eight hours a day collecting water, carrying up to 20 kilos of water on their heads each journey. A woman living in a slum in Kenya pays at least five times more for one liter of water than a woman in the United States. Every day 6,000 girls and boys die from diseases linked to unsafe water, inadequate health and poor hygiene. One in ten school-age girls in Africa do not attend school during menstruation or drop out at puberty because of the absence of clean and private sanitation facilities in schools. So gender specificity turned out to have powerful reverberations. (Sanjay 2004)


This special issue is an expression of our deep admiration for women all around the world who are putting their bodies and their lives on the line for water. Women such as Lupita Lara who refused to leave her Mexican village as workers started blasting rocks steps from her house to build a dam. She filed a lawsuit to contest a deficient environmental risk assessment and a court order halted dam construction. Now she coordinates all activities in the fight against the construction of the planned dam. (Eckhoff 2007: 1) And Patricia Velasquez, a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2003 who fixed the local water pump in a Venezuelan village not far from where she was born to provide drinkable water to nearly 3,000 people for the first time in 10 years. (UNESCO 2003)


Women like German activist Ulrike Rohr, director of the German-based group called Genanet- Focal point Gender, Environment, Sustainability, who demands climate gender justice, asserting that men are warming up the globe and women in developing countries are taking the heat as they gather water for their families in drought and flood conditions caused by global warming. (Morano 2005)


Furthermore, a recent newspaper article underscores the physical ramifications for women subjected to water politics and how they are sacrificing their bodies and their health. It details how Indian women in a fishing village ravaged by the 2004 tsunami have sold their kidneys to pay off their family’s debt and now wear long scars across their midriffs and clutch the side of their bodies in pain as they journey to fetch water. (McGougall 2007:19).And we must remember those who are fleeing the horrific violence in Darfur and how many—particularly women and children—die of thirst on the road because they left in too much of a hurry to take water. (Borger 2007: 1)


We are inspired by the hundreds of women activists and writers who sent us their work—not just from the United States and Canada but from Afghanistan, Australia, Brazil, China, Cyprus, Columbia, England, France, Germany, Guam, Greece, India, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, the Occupied Territories, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Senegal, Thailand, and all over the world. This enabled us to include a range of voices, yet we regret that we did not have room to include them all.


In the Poetry section that follows, women and water are viewed through the frames of activism, flooding, thirst, purity, water as political boundary, water as a physical reality. Patricia Brody’s poem features the Kennebec River where peace activist Helen Caldicott protested against Bath Iron Works, one of the few shipyards still building destroyers for the U.S. Navy there. Pramila Venkateswaran’s poem “Hunger Vigil” is dedicated to the Narmada Bachau Andolan hunger strikers in India.


Poet Eileen R. Tabios writes about the mudslide brought about by weeks of heavy rains that nearly destroyed the village of Barangay Guinsaugon in Southern Leyte, Philippines and Louisa Calio dedicates her poem to Jamaicans who lost their lives in a flash flood. Porchia Moore sets her poem in rural South Carolina where poor, black tobacco farmers live without proper running water or sewer systems. Russian Sudanese poet Suzannah Mirghani explores a failed rain dance and the exploitation of land through patriarchal colonialism and modernization.


E-K Daufin, a professor at the historically black Alabama State University in Montgomery, writes about how women now have jobs in South Africa as part of a government project to cut down invasive, water- sucking trees that Afrikkaners planted, and absorb obscene amounts of ground water so there isn’t enough for women to use for their families. Australian-born poet Seree Zohar details the Mikveh pre-marital bathing ritual and its place in a feminist society. Tapati Bharadwaj’s poem is set in South East Asia where women labor in the paddy fields.


Several poets embrace a historical approach to their poems such as Annette Spaulding-Convy’s exploration of Salem witch trials in the 1600s and water drownings; Idra Novey’s visit to the Johnstown Flood Museum and the pictures of women from the era of the 1889 flood; Clea Ainsworth’s “Song for Anna of Walhachin,” about the deserted settlement in British Columbia’s interior translating as “land of the round stones” but nonetheless touted as a “bountiful valley” in 1910; Dana Liu’s poem “Deliver” is set during the Communist revolution in China; and finally, Davi Walders’ “Strutthof, Sixty Years After” details how Nazis marched starving women into the sea to their death. Poets Daniela Gioseffi and Megan Gannon set their works in Africa while Cori Gabbard’s “Metropolis” takes readers to the Bronx in New York City and Mary Austin Speaker to Texas oil country.


The last task was coming up with a title. I thought about how every time I drive by the confluence in Pittsburgh and am moved by it the same way my grandmother was the Trinity when we passed a Catholic Church. She would touch her forehead, her heart, and each shoulder to make the sign of the cross. The Catholic schoolgirl in me bows my head and says, "In the name of the Allegheny, and of the Mon, and of the holy Ohio. Amen." It will always be a sacred place of unity.


Thinking about the contributors gathered together in the Poetry section and this special issue reminded me of why Native Americans settled at the point in Pittsburgh where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. Not only were the rivers and the point where they merge a marvel of beauty but a strategic location as well. I would like to think of this confluence of voices as a strategy of sorts, women united in their struggle for water rights. And we hope that this journal issue in all its gorgeous utterances is sustenance along the journey.


Paola Corso

Writer-in-Residence Western Connecticut State University

Master of Fine Arts Program in Professional Writing

181 White Street Danbury, Connecticut 06810, USA





Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.


Cohon, J. 2002. Investing in Clean Water: A Report from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Infrastructure Project Steering Committee Executive Summary, Pittsburgh, Pa: Carnegie Mellon University.


Corso, P. 2004. Death By Renaissance. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press.

Davis, D. 2007. The Secret History of the War on Cancer. New York, NY: Basic Books.


Tarr, J.A.(ed) 2003. Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.



Borger, J. 2007. ‘Darfur massacres reach into Chad as militia crosses border’. The Guardian Weekly, 20-26 April: 1.


Gilley J. and Burnett S. 1998. ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing Pittsburgh’s Man of Steel: Reading Joe Magarac against the Context of the 20th-Century Steel Industry’, Journal of American Folklore, Fall 1998, Volume 111, 392-408.


Hopey, D. 2004. ‘Fish show how much rivers have improved’. The Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, 17 June: A 15. Hopey, D. 2005. ‘Pa. has miles and miles of dirty rivers and streams’. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 April.


Massy, S. 1996. ‘Reason for Hope: Despite Region’s Low Ranking, Experts Believe Pittsburgh is on the Way Back’. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 31 March: A-18.


McGougall, D. 2007. ‘India’s poor fall prey to kidney trade’. The Guardian Weekly 2-8 March: 19. Morano, M. 2005. ‘Men Warm Globe, Women Feel the Heat, Group Claims’. 6 December.


Sanjay, S. 2004. ‘Consumer Group Links Women’s Rights to Water Rights’. Inter Press Service London, March. Shabecoff, P. 1981. ‘Water Pollution Worst in 34 Areas’. The New York Times 29 July: 13.


Thompson, D. 1985. ‘The Human Trauma of Steel’s Decline’. Industry Week 2 September: 39.


Articles in edited volume:

Hays, S.P. 2003. ‘Beyond Celebration: Pittsburgh and Its Region in the Environmental Era—Notes by a Participant Observer’, in Tarr, J.A. (ed.) Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region, pp. 193-221. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.



University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute/Center for Environmental Oncology brochure, ‘Environmental Risks of Breast Cancer in African American Women’.


Press releases:

United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO Press Release ‘Venezuelan actress Patricia Velasquez named UNESCO Artist for Peace’, 6 June 2003. United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 3 Press Release, ‘Allegheny Ludlum to Pay $150,000 for Blocking EPA Access to Superfund Cleanup’, July 21, 1999.



Cohon, J. 2002. ‘Investing in Clean Water: A Report from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Infrastructure Project Steering Committee Executive Summary”, Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University


Web Documents:

Eckhoff, R. 2007. ‘Lupita Lara – a courageous Mexican woman prevents ecological disaster’. Global Nature Fund Last modified 18 June 2007. Available at Tarr, J.A. 2004. ‘Pittsburgh Wastewater Issues: The Historical Origins of an Environmental Problem’. (accessed May 2007)

Copyright © 2020 Paola Corso. All Rights Reserved.

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