Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When she was a judge on Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, Genevieve Blatt (1913-96) was known to instruct her law clerks that she didn’t want to see them typing. “She was very insistent that we had other people who could perform that task for us,” said Mary K. Kisthardt, a former law clerk for the judge who is now a professor of law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. Blatt’s attitude had its roots back in 1937, when she was a new graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Because she was a woman, the only job she was offered was that of legal secretary. “Once she got a real legal job, she vowed that she would not ever type again,” Kisthardt explained, adding, “Her stories of her early career and the obstacles she faced had quite an impact on me.”

History shows that Genevieve Blatt had quite an impact on many people. She broke through barriers without a second thought and served as a role model, particularly for women. Many women and men who have already reached or are just now reaching the apogee of their own careers in government or the law knew her as a mentor who helped to set them on a forward path in their own lives.

 

Blatt was sworn in as secretary of internal affairs in 1955, making her the first woman to hold statewide elected office in Pennsylvania. Gov. George M. Leader looks on as Blatt takes her oath before Anne X. Alpern, justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County who later became the first woman to serve as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, 1959–61, and the first woman justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1961–62. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

Blatt was sworn in as secretary of internal affairs in 1955, making her the first woman to hold statewide elected office in Pennsylvania. Gov. George M. Leader looks on as Blatt takes her oath before Anne X. Alpern, justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County who later became the first woman to serve as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, 1959–61, and the first woman justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1961–62. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

Blatt was the first woman to win elected statewide office in Pennsylvania, as secretary of internal affairs in 1954. She won again in 1958, with the largest plurality of any candidate running, and once more in 1962. She ran a spirited race for U.S. Senate in 1964 and narrowly lost to Republican Hugh Scott, in part because her Democratic primary rival engaged in a sour-grapes action that delayed the certification of her victory and kept her from general-election campaigning. When she ran for a fourth term as secretary of internal affairs in 1966, she lost, but in retrospect one might conclude that her most influential, and meaningful, days were still ahead.

Blatt served as a delegate at every Democratic National Convention from 1936 to 1972. She wore this badge at the 1968 convention in Chicago. The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Photo by Don Giles

Blatt served as a delegate at every Democratic National Convention from 1936 to 1972. She wore this badge at the 1968 convention in Chicago.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Before and after holding elective political office, Blatt was a behind-the-scenes force in Democratic politics. Her high-profile lineage stretched all the way back to 1936, when she was a delegate to the party’s national convention and was credited with being the first delegate that year to cast a vote for the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She subsequently attended every Democratic National Convention through 1972, held the position of secretary of the State Democratic Committee from 1948 to 1971, and served on the Democratic National Committee from 1970 to 1972. She resigned from the national committee in 1972 when Gov. Milton J. Shapp appointed her to fill an unexpired term on Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, making her the first woman to serve in that position. She won retention and remained on the bench until her retirement in 1993, three years before her death.

Some judgeships are viewed as capstones to long legal careers. Blatt’s accomplishments were primarily political. But her hard work and record as a judge were more than worthy of legal respect. While she was “not a Brandeis or a Cardozo,” said Dan Schuckers, a former prothonotary of Commonwealth Court, “she was well-rounded in the law.” Richard DiSalle, now 90, the last survivor of the judges who sat with Blatt on Commonwealth Court, said in a recent interview, “Her greatest asset was her knowledge of the law. She was as good a lawyer as she was a politician.”  It was well known and often noted by the press that Blatt suffered from narcolepsy, a long-standing condition that worsened as she grew older, and sometimes she would appear to nod off. DiSalle dismissed her condition as “hardly noticeable” and said it was never an issue within the court.

What she is remembered for as a judge is a groundbreaking majority decision in 1974, in litigation against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), in which she held for the court majority that it was impermissible for Pennsylvania high school sports to discriminate on the basis of gender. Blatt wrote in her opinion that the PIAA bylaw stating that “girls shall not compete or practice against boys in any athletic contest” was “unconstitutional on its face under the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] and none of the justifications for it offered by the PIAA, even if proved, could sustain its legality.”

***

Genevieve Blatt became one of the most accomplished women in Pennsylvania political history, earning a nickname as the “First Lady of Pennsylvania Politics.”  But she started life with few material advantages. What she did have, which counted for a lot, was a loving family and people willing to help her get started in life, a theme that certainly seems to have molded her. She was encouraged to be ambitious, and she used her considerable native intelligence to take advantage of the opportunities that were available to her.

Blatt was born into a devout Catholic family in East Brady, Clarion County, in 1913. The town is along the Allegheny River, about 69 miles upstream from Pittsburgh and 59 miles south of Titusville. Roughly around the time she was born, East Brady had a population just shy of 1,500 and was considered “fairly prosperous,” thanks to a nearby “burgeoning oil industry.” Her parents, George Blatt and Mary Ida Laurent, had married in 1911 when he was 35 and she was 30. They would have five surviving children, of which Genevieve was the oldest. She had two sisters, one of whom became a nun, and two brothers. George Blatt was a vegetarian, ran a hardware store, and was considered quite clever as an idea man. He designed and built their house, a two-story wooden structure, and included a dumb-waiter between the kitchen and the cellar and an aqueduct for pumping in water.

George and Mary Blatt with their daughter arrive at the polls in Pittsburgh on Election Day 1958, Genevieve’s second run for secretary of internal affairs. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

George and Mary Blatt with their daughter arrive at the polls in Pittsburgh on Election Day 1958, Genevieve’s second run for secretary of internal affairs. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

According to Kathy Blatt, a niece (the daughter of Genevieve’s brother Joe), Genevieve fell seriously ill when she was 5 years old in 1918 and was quarantined at home. Nobody in the present knows for sure what the illness was, but it is believed to have been either scarlet fever or influenza. But because of the quarantine, Genevieve began homeschooling under the tutelage of her mother and she remained homeschooled for nearly a year. What was remarkable was that when Genevieve went back to regular school, according to the family, she had not fallen behind but rather had leapt forward and was about two years ahead of other pupils her age. “From then on,” Kathy Blatt said, “she was always two grades ahead and two years younger than everybody else” at her grade level.

In 1925 George Blatt gave up his hardware store and the entire family moved to Pittsburgh, along with grandmother Clara Laurent. According to family letters, the decision was predicated on the opportunity for Genevieve and the other children to attend a better school than was available in East Brady.

After the stock market crash in 1929, it was rough going. The family took in roomers and struggled to make ends meet. “Time after time . . . I remember when the mortgage on our house came due and there wasn’t any money to pay it off,” Genevieve wrote in one letter. “It was usually our pastor who intervened with someone at the bank and got us a last-minute renewal.”

It was also the pastor, the Rev. Thomas Coakley at Sacred Heart Church, who secured for George Blatt an all-important job as the custodian at the church where Genevieve had begun attending school. Coakley became a mentor. He had been an Army chaplain during World War I, was the first director of Pittsburgh’s DePaul School for the deaf, and served briefly as director of Catholic Charities in Pittsburgh. Described as “dynamic” and “progressive,” he recognized Genevieve’s abilities and rounded up “sponsors” who helped defray her educational costs, not only at Sacred Heart but also later when she became a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Blatt and Governor Lawrence greet President John F. Kennedy at the airport on his visit to Harrisburg in 1962.

Blatt and Governor Lawrence greet President John F. Kennedy at the airport on his visit to Harrisburg in 1962.
Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

“She went to college during the Great Depression and as a woman she needed the help of people who were willing to invest in her education,” Kathy Blatt said. “It was outside the stereotypes of the time. Everybody was trying to help out.” Coakley remained pastor of Sacred Heart for the rest of his life. He died at age 71 in 1951 while in the midst of building a new high school for girls.

When Blatt entered Pitt she was a slight, 5-foot-3 young woman who tried to sign up for the tennis team but was thought to need “a little bit more growing” (she was younger than other incoming freshmen) and so was put on a regimen of milk and rest. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1933 and a master’s in 1934, both in political science from Pitt. She received her law degree from Pitt in 1937.

As she explained in a 1980 interview with Walter Massey Phillips for an oral history project at Temple University,  she got into politics at the behest of a neighbor who was working on the Pittsburgh mayoral campaign of Cornelius D. Scully. The connection resulted in what was supposed to be a temporary job as secretary at the city’s Civil Service Commission. But the job stretched on and on, and then she succumbed to entreaties to move into the city law department as an assistant city solicitor. “That was just at the beginning of World War II when men lawyers were somewhat scarce and I was all too available,” she said. “I worked with Mayor Scully, who was mayor when I came in, and before I left Mayor [David L.] Lawrence was the mayor and so I worked with him.”

Blatt campaigns for a seat in the U.S. Senate along with President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 run for the presidency. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

Blatt campaigns for a seat in the U.S. Senate along with President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 run for the presidency.
Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

Blatt eventually became Pittsburgh city solicitor, and in that office she wrote the first smoke-control ordinance to protect citizens from the then heavily polluted air. She would have an enduring and admiring relationship with Lawrence, who became governor in 1959. “He was always trying to bring in useful people in the party — people who had something to contribute in the way of ideas or votes or influence,” she said of Lawrence. Her climb into statewide politics began in 1944, when she was elected president of the Young Democrats of Pennsylvania. In 1945 Lawrence persuaded her to go to Harrisburg as a deputy to newly elected State Treasurer Ramsey Black.

She held both appointed and elected public offices in Harrisburg, but Blatt told interviewer Phillips that she considered serving as judge as the most important job she ever had. “As a lawyer, I suppose I have a little bias, but I always think that the judges are the most important people in government because they really do have the final say on what is the law that the other people write or enforce.”

***

Imagine a wise and kindly maiden aunt to whom you can always turn for encouragement, advice and, when need be, a helping hand. That’s pretty much how Genevieve Blatt has been thought of, not only by her family but also by many people who came into her orbit over the decades of her career.

To her real-life nieces and nephews, and there are 20 of them at large in the world, she was “Aunt Gen.” During her lifetime, she regularly sent missives to this brood, sort of in the fashion of a shared chain letter. She used these to mark holidays and special occasions, pass along news of weddings and births, tell tales of her travels (it seems she visited nearly every place in the world), report on shows she’d seen and books she’d read, and elucidate various nuggets of family history she happened to be thinking about.

For example, she joked about friends who had “an ungainly dog they dared to name Genevieve.” She told of a grandmother who “did the Highland Fling one night for the special edification of your Aunt Sister (Mary Clare, the nun) and myself.” She informed her kin that they had had a great-grandfather who hiked from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back again in an unsuccessful attempt to join the Union Army when he was 12 years old. She reminded them of church events. (She went to early mass every day, even when traveling, and was widely known for working for the canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Neumann. Three times she received papal honors.)

 

At this meeting of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons at the Western State Penitentiary in 1957, Blatt stands beside her colleague and friend Secretary of the Commonwealth James A. Finnegan, second from the left, who died in 1958 and became the namesake of a foundation cofounded by Blatt and others in 1960 to support the training of exceptional students in government and politics. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

At this meeting of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons at the Western State Penitentiary in 1957, Blatt stands beside her colleague and friend Secretary of the Commonwealth James A. Finnegan, second from the left, who died in 1958 and became the namesake of a foundation cofounded by Blatt and others in 1960 to support the training of exceptional students in government and politics. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

The other young women and men she helped along over the years became her extended family. She didn’t forget; she stayed in touch. Her attention was particularly available to the former state government interns who passed through the James A. Finnegan Foundation and the more than two dozen former law clerks who worked for her in Commonwealth Court.

The foundation’s alumni roster numbered 413 men and women through the spring of 2018. In 1960 Blatt was among a group of prominent Democratic politicians who established the nonprofit organization as a tribute to the memory of Jim Finnegan, a secretary of the commonwealth who died in office at age 52 in 1959, and she served as president of the foundation for many years. The organization continues to provide paid summer internships in state government to encourage college students to consider careers in government.

The program’s namesake was at one time chairman of the Philadelphia City Council and chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Party. The Philadelphia Inquirer once described Finnegan as “an organization man with principles.” Of Blatt’s relationship with him, the newspaper took note that she admired Finnegan’s “political sagacity” and observed that there was a “close political bond” between the two. In fact, there was more. The night Finnegan died, Blatt sent a telegram to her sister, Mary Clare. “Jim died tonight. Pray for me,” it read. “I think it was an important relationship but not something that was talked about with others,” Kathy Blatt said. “I believe there was a romance. Whether there was an engagement, no one knows.” She said her aunt kept Finnegan’s photo with her in a silver case.

 

Blatt became known for the flamboyant hats she wore to public functions. In 1964, the year she was campaigning for U.S. Senate, she was recognized by the Millinery Institute of America as one of the Best-Hatted Women in America.

Blatt became known for the flamboyant hats she wore to public functions. In 1964, the year she was campaigning for U.S. Senate, she was recognized by the Millinery Institute of America as one of the Best-Hatted Women in America.
Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

A hat from the wardrobe of Genevieve Blatt.

A hat from the wardrobe of Genevieve Blatt.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Debra K. Wallet, now a member of the foundation board and a lawyer in Cumberland County, had a Finnegan internship in 1972 between her junior and senior years at Gettysburg College. She worked in the state Bureau of Labor Relations, which fed her interest in becoming a labor lawyer. After graduating, she attended the Dickinson School of Law, and when she did indeed become a lawyer, Judge Blatt hired her as a law clerk.

Wallet’s voice filled with emotion as she talked about Blatt. “She really did set me on the path to becoming a lawyer. She was a role model, a woman who was successful, and a good person too. She was good to everybody.” Blatt was known for her showy hats and Wallet is proud that she still possesses one that Blatt gave her.

So too, Jeannine Turgeon, another former law clerk, is proud to have a Blatt keepsake, a judicial robe that Blatt once wore in Commonwealth Court. Turgeon now wears that robe on the bench as a common pleas judge in Dauphin County. Turgeon has kept a running list of Blatt’s law clerks. By her count, there were 28 in all.

Turgeon’s relationship with Blatt began when, as a teenager, she persuaded Blatt to give a speech to her high school Democratic club in suburban Harrisburg and then got her to come speak again when Turgeon was in law school at Pitt. “Don’t forget to send me your resume when you graduate,” Blatt advised, and meant it. Blatt also offered advice when Turgeon was thinking about running for judge, and it was Blatt who administered the oath of office after Turgeon won her race. “She was a lovely, humble, accomplished human being,” Turgeon said. “She had a passion for making the world a better place.”

Another judge in the Blatt “lineage” is Thomas I. Vanaskie, a member of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He too had been a Finnegan intern, and in 1976, having finished his first year at the Dickinson School of Law, was looking for law-related summer work. “I contacted Judge Blatt and she immediately secured the approval of the Commonwealth Court president judge to hire me as a part-time summer intern, working 20 hours per week,” Vanaskie said. “Judge Blatt gave me incredible responsibility and assigned me the task of drafting an opinion. [She] was a tremendous influence on my legal career.”

The stories could go on of the young people she took under her wing. After graduating from Penn State, Patricia Crawford went to work for Blatt in 1964 when Blatt was secretary of internal affairs. “She was the best first boss and mentor anyone could have. She laid the groundwork for the rest of my career.” Crawford, who retired in 2008, had a long career with various state agencies and for a time with the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. “Things about Genevieve Blatt’s mentoring that influenced me throughout my career included the importance of striving for perfection and attention to detail in all tasks, demonstrating a gracious and dignified demeanor in dealing with staff and the public, and maintaining a good sense of humor throughout,” she said.

Genevieve Blatt during her service on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

Genevieve Blatt during her service on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-283

The only “secret” Blatt may have harbored was what she once told Dan Schuckers. He said Blatt confided that when she was very young she had been so impressed by former Republican governor Gifford Pinchot’s flamboyant and progressive wife, Cornelia, who had fought for women’s suffrage and advocated for enlightened labor policies, that she had considered registering Republican (Pinchot was governor 1923–27 and 1931–35).

Throughout her career, Blatt managed to get along with the opposition. Friends were quick to say, “She was respected across party lines.” Pennsylvania newspaperman and historian Paul B. Beers confirmed this when he wrote in Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday that Blatt was “without a diehard enemy.” In 1965, for example, she countered the men-only Gridiron Dinner with a “Gridiron Widows” send-up dinner at the old Penn Harris Hotel in Harrisburg and Republican governor William Scranton and his wife dropped in to give the event some heft.

A story is told — perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not — to illustrate how regard for Genevieve Blatt bridged parties. One morning, the story goes, Blatt was walking hurriedly from her residence at the Grayco Apartments to the Harrisburg station to catch a train to Philadelphia for a court session. She suddenly realized that, though she had her pocketbook, there was no money in it. On the street she ran into George Bloom, former chairman of the Republican State Committee. It was said that in gentlemanly fashion Bloom kindly lent her the funds for her ticket. Or so the story goes.

 

Don Sarvey, a former newspaperman and magazine editor, is a freelance writer who lives in Harrisburg. He is coauthor of Pioneers of Cable Television and author of Day of Rage and The History of Law and Lawyers in Dauphin County. His previous article for Pennsylvania Heritage, “Tough and Determined: Pioneering Newspaper Editor Rebecca F. Gross,” appeared in the Summer 2017 issue.