How WDN Connects Women and Cultivates Progressive Giving

Donna Hall, President and CEO, Women Donors Network, speaking at the WDN 2015 conference in New Orleans.

One of the most significant barriers to women starting out in philanthropy is lack of knowledge about how and where to donate money. Women new to philanthropy, including women whose families may have ill-prepared them for the financial management of inheritance, may have trouble picking an organization or cause to focus on. They may be confused about which kind of donation will create the most value for an organization, or may simply not understand the tax ramifications of different forms of philanthropy.

That’s where Women Donors Network (WDN) comes in. A network of progressive women philanthropists, WDN focus on three themes: connect, collaborate, and catalyze. In other words, WDN helps women get into relationships that teach them about philanthropy — how to collaborate on philanthropic projects, and how to act as catalysts for progressive social change.

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Gilded Age Wives Set Philanthropy’s Gold Standard

The Rockefeller wives at a dinner party in New York, March 1949. From left to right: Abby (Babs) Rockefeller Pardee, Peggy McGrath Rockefeller, Mary “Tod” Rockefeller, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, Barbara “Bobo” Sears Rockefeller, and Mary French Rockefeller. (Photo Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center)

The storied fortunes of the Gilded Age are so closely associated with the men who made them that the wives who used that money to help society are often unknown. Wealthy women in the 19th century were expected to be little more than heir-producers and society hostesses.

But women such as Louise Whitfield Carnegie, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney did not spend their days merely updating the Social Register, getting fitted for sumptuous gowns, or meeting for luxurious, gossipy lunches. They also worked hard to make sure that their families’ fortunes—all built on the backs of the less fortunate—were used to help others. Wealthy 19th century women were not supposed to work outside the home, and they certainly had no financial need to do so. But these women expanded their limited roles through charitable work and in doing so created a new public role for women.

Let’s take a look at how some women took what many felt was a limited life in a gilded cage and made valuable efforts at social improvement:

Brooke Astor, circa 1930’s. Astor once famously said, “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.”

Brooke Astor (1902-2007): John Jacob Astor built his family fortune on the early national era fur trade and Manhattan real estate. But it was his great-grandson’s wife Brooke who kept the family name and reputation alive. Appointed a member of the board of the Astor Foundation upon marrying into the family, Brooke Astor also became a prominent member of Manhattan’s wealthy female philanthropic set after her husband died. She lived according to her dictum, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.” She was a Trustee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, served on the boards of various other charities, and in her lifetime donated at least $195 million to charitable organizations. Former New York Mayor Abraham Beame claimed that Astor (had) “done more for New York City than any other one person.” For her work, she received many accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Louise Whitfield Carnegie was instrumental in creating Carnegie Hall and made significant contributions to many New York-based organizations.

Louise Whitfield Carnegie (1857-1946): Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie famously wrote in his “Gospel of Wealth” that “the problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and the poor in harmonious relationships.” He was not alone in that thinking: his wife Louise shared that sentiment and both before and after her husband’s death was committed to his philanthropic vision. Though she had signed a prenuptial agreement promising not to make any claim on his fortune in exchange for a limited annual income, she maintained significant influence over Carnegie’s philanthropic decisions. Most people have heard of Carnegie Hall, which she was influential in creating, but she also managed contributions to the Red Cross, Y.W.C.A., and many New York-based organizations.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Photo Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948): Her 1901 wedding to the heir to the Standard Oil fortune, John Davison Rockefeller Jr., was splashed all over the society pages of American newspapers, but Abby Aldrich Rockefeller would soon be known not just as the wife of one of the richest men in America, but also as one of the most forward-thinking philanthropists of all time. She financed a Red Cross unit during World War I, and was instrumental in calling for and creating hotels for women. Her collection of revolutionary European and American art, including works by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among others, was the foundation of what would become New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Unable to contribute as much money as she wanted to due to a strict allowance from her husband, Abby stepped beyond the limited definition of the duties of a society wife to fund the creation of the museum, as she made direct solicitations to wealthy individuals and major corporations.

Jane Stanford ran Stanford University and managed an extensive building program after her husband Leland’s death in 1893.

Jane Lathrop Stanford (1825-1905): Jane Stanford suffered more than her share of tragedy. Though her husband Leland built a substantial fortune through trade and became governor of California, personal happiness did not follow material wealth. She and her husband lost his law library and other property in a fire, her son Leland, Jr. died at age 15, and she herself was murdered by strychnine poisoning. Her murder may have had something to do with the power struggles over control of Stanford University, which she and her husband founded in 1891. The university struggled following Leland, Sr.’s death two years later, but Jane took over its management and used her own allowance to keep the university afloat while Leland Sr.’s estate was in probate. She even famously, and unsuccessfully, tried to sell her fabulous jewel collection in England during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations. After her death, the Jewel Fund was established following the sale of those jewels, and to this day provides funding for the university’s library.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney working on a sculpture, c. 1920. Her close alliance with the art world lay the groundwork for the Whitney Museum of Art’s founding in 1931.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942): Scion of the wealthy railroad and shipping Vanderbilt family, Gertrude was unlike her notoriously tight-fisted grandfather, who founded Vanderbilt University but about whose refusal to donate to charity Mark Twain once wrote, “You observe that I haven’t said anything about your soul, Vanderbilt. It is because I have evidence that you haven’t any.” That wasn’t true of Gertrude, who married into another wealthy family, the oil-rich Whitneys, and trained as an artist, most notably of public sculptures and memorials. She was a strong patron of female artists, and her immersion in the art world convinced her that modern art needed to be promoted. She eventually turned her gallery into what is now the world-renowned Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931.

These women—the wives of the world’s most prominent capitalists during the Industrial Era—are largely responsible for developing various aspects of American philanthropy. Women such as Melinda Gates, Susan Dell, and Susan Buffett, who preside over some of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world today, have certainly benefited from the work of the Gilded Age female philanthropists who established charitable organizations and networks and provided models for a new public role for women in the 19th century. They proved that women could found and run charitable organizations and establish institutions that, to this day, continue to serve society.

More Articles by Jill Silos-Rooney:

The Past, Present, and Future of Historic Preservation is Female

Harvesting Female Empowerment: Florence Reed and the Business of Food

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The Past, Present, and Future of Historic Preservation is Female

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy led the effort to preserve the White House as a national historic treasure.

Visit any historic property in the United States, and more than likely you’ll discover that women were responsible for its preservation. Though Americans often argue over what to preserve from our nation’s history, one thing remains clear: historic preservation is vital to understanding our nation’s past and forming our national identity. American women have played the main role in securing valuable historic properties to tell the story of the American past, and used political activism, philanthropy, and social networking to do so.

Let’s take a brief survey of just a few of the women’s groups and individual women involved in historic preservation.

Ann Pamela Cunningham: Historian Jill Teehan wrote that “historic preservationists universally credit Ann Pamela Cunningham, the woman who saved George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, as the chief architect of the historic preservation movement in the United States.” Cunningham heard about the dismal state of Mount Vernon in an 1853 letter from her mother, who wrote, “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?” Cunningham then raised funds for its purchase and preservation through fairly new techniques such as newspaper appeals. She founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the first national women’s group, and the association that still manages Mount Vernon. Today, it is today the oldest private preservation organization in the United States.

Twenty Boston Women: The Old South Meeting House was the largest building in colonial Boston and was slated for demolition in 1876, until a now-anonymous group of women rallied to save it. Once a center of protest meetings during the Revolutionary era, the Meeting House had survived the Great Boston Fire of 1872 that destroyed 40 acres of the city’s downtown. It had fallen out of use as a church, but Boston women, convinced of the building’s historical value, rallied to preserve the building. The women enlisted such venerable Americans as abolitionist Wendell Phillips, philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and beloved author Louisa May Alcott. They raised $400,000 to preserve the building and opened it as one of the first history museums in the United States. According to the Old South Meeting House website, the efforts of these women resulted in “the first successful preservation effort in New England.”

Daughters of the American Revolution: Founded in 1890, the D.A.R. has had its share of controversy in the past, but is significant for its commitment to historic preservation. In fact, the D.A.R. is so famous for this work it’s even mentioned in the 1957 Broadway hit (and later film)  The Music Man. This organization raises money for the preservation of important historical sites in the United States, including the U.S. Capitol Building, the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. It has also provided funding for monuments and statues across the country, and members often volunteer at historic sites. The organization promotes and encourages historic preservation by awarding the Historic Preservation Medal and Historic Preservation Recognition Award, which both recognize individuals engaged in significant preservation projects.

National Society of the Colonial Dames: For 125 years, the Colonial Dames have worked to preserve and restore artifacts from the colonial era, including historic homes, paintings, portraits, and rare examples of women’s needlework from the colonial era. One of its most famous contributions to historic preservation is the granite canopy that protects Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is visited by thousands of tourists every year.

Helen Pitts Douglass: A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, longtime abolitionist Douglass was the second wife of Frederick Douglass, an advocate for women’s rights, and one of the first to recognize the importance of African American history. Their interracial marriage caused controversy across the United States and this resulted in her multi-year struggle with his children to gain control of Cedar Hill, the Washington, D.C. home they lived in. In 1900 she established the home as a memorial to Douglass’s life and work as a former slave and prominent abolitionist. She founded and supported the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association with lecture fees, and when she died the National Association of Colored Women raised funds to buy Cedar Hill. Today, the re-named Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is managed by the National Park Service.

Caroline Emmerton: Born into the richest family in Salem, Massachusetts, Emmerton learned the value of community service from her mother and was a lifelong philanthropist. In addition to the creation of the Seaman’s Association for Widows and Orphans, Emmerton was committed to historic preservation, and was almost solely responsible for the preservation of many properties in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 20th century, including the House of the Seven Gables. She was also a founding member for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), which later became Historic New England. Like many philanthropists, she not only raised money to fund these efforts but also donated large amounts of her own fortune to further public interest in America’s past.

Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy: The cultured and sophisticated wife of President John F. Kennedy overcame her natural shyness in order to take the White House from being a dowdy old government building to the impressive and historic home to presidents that we know today. With Winterthur Museum’s founder Henry Francis du Pont, she formed the White House Fine Arts Committee and raised awareness of the need for the White House’s renovation and preservation through carefully-designed media efforts, including a spread in Life Magazine and a televised tour of the White House. She relied heavily on historical scholarship and told Life reporter Hugh Sidey, “Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be sacrilege merely to redecorate it—a word I hate. It must be restored, and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship.”

Hillary Clinton: The former First Lady, Senator, and first female presidential candidate from a major party has led successful efforts to preserve parts of America’s past. In 1998, while she was first lady, Clinton founded Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, the first project of Save America’s Treasures and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in order to secure Val-Kill Cottage, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt, as a National Historic Site. She also secured a $10 million dollar donation from designer Ralph Lauren to pay for the preservation of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the nearly three-story flag that survived the attack on Fort Henry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write what is now our national anthem. At the time, it was the largest single corporate donation the Smithsonian had ever received. But Clinton also had a long-term vision for public collaboration in preserving American history. She stated, “We are not talking about just generous gifts, but also encouraging kindergartners to collect pennies to clean up the monument in the town square.”

This brief survey of the individual women and women’s groups that created the framework of historic preservation in the United States, including their efforts to raise necessary funds, demonstrates how vital the philanthropic work of American women has been to shaping our understanding of our nation’s history. This work continues, led by women such as Stephanie Meeks, the first woman president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As the current President and CEO of the National Trust, Meeks is especially committed to preserving sites important to the history of American women.

Today, women still participate in and lead preservation efforts in their own communities. Fundraising for such efforts is a great opportunity for girls and women’s groups, and helps increase society’s awareness of the role of women in our historical development.


Discovering America’s History of Black Female Philanthropy: Madam C. J. Walker

This Changes Everything: Early American Feminists Were Deeply Religious, Relational, and Race-Conscious

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Harvesting Female Empowerment: Florence Reed, Sustainable Harvest International, and the Business of Food

Florence Reed, Founder and President, Sustainable Harvest International

Sustainable Harvest International Founder and President Florence Reed did not encounter many other women leaders in philanthropy when she started the organization in 1997. “I was flying by the seat of my pants. I literally went to a library and checked out a book on how to start a non-profit, and went through it chapter by chapter,” she recalled in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women. Who knew then how successful her initiative would be: Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) was recently named by Charity Navigator as one of the “six highest-ranking charities in the sector making major strides to increase sustainable food production.”

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Discovering America’s History of Black Female Philanthropy: Madam C. J. Walker

American women have not generally been celebrated for their philanthropic activity, so it shouldn’t be surprising that African-American female philanthropists are especially invisible in contemporary culture.

Madam C. J. Walker

But that wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, African-American women were engaged in a literal battle for survival in a segregated and violently racist nation. One African- American woman, however, managed to go from being a laundress who sometimes earned less than one dollar a day to becoming one of the first self-made female millionaires in the United States. Her name was Sarah Breedlove, but she was known far and wide as Madam C. J. Walker, the founder of a hair care empire and a noted philanthropist. Walker used her fortune to champion the YMCA, the Tuskegee Institute, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other important civic and educational organizations.

A Difficult Start

Born in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana, young Breedlove was the first of her family to be born outside of slavery. But she was no stranger to the harsh realities of life for African-Americans in the United States. Orphaned by age seven, she witnessed both the promise and the betrayal of freedom in the south during Reconstruction. Louisiana was where the first southern African-American newspaper was published, but was also the location of the 1873 Colfax Massacre, where enraged ex-Confederate white supremacists murdered up to 150 black citizens to prevent them from exercising their political rights.

Lacking any other options, like most young African-American women in the South, Breedlove went into the fields. She picked cotton at an early age, worked as a domestic, and married at 14. Widowed by the time she was 20, she and her daughter moved to Missouri in 1888, where she became a laundress. Though such exhausting labor, she scraped enough money together to not only live but also to provide an education for her daughter.

Going into Business

Throughout all of this time, Breedlove took note of the toll that poor working conditions and poverty had on her skin, hair, and scalp. At the time, the harsh and poisonous chemical lye was a common household item, used as laundry and skin soap. It was even used as a form of birth control by women, who soaked sponges or cloth in the deadly chemical and used it as a vaginal and chemical barrier.

Combined with the primitive nature of 19th century bathing facilities, the use of dangerous chemicals in the household and on the body meant that women—especially African-American women—suffered significant health issues. When Breedlove began to lose her hair, she discussed the problem with her brothers, who were barbers. Then, she accepted a position as a salesperson for the Poro Company, an African-American hair-care business owned by Annie Malone, another ambitious black businesswoman.

An early 20th century advertisement for Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower

After learning the business, Breedlove began to develop her own hair care products for African American women. She married Charles Walker in 1906, and marketed her recipe as Madam C.J. Walker, employing a keen marketing strategy with help from her husband, a newspaper ad man.

She often told the story of how the recipe for her Wonderful Hair Grower came to her in a dream, as she and her husband traveled to tell the story and sell products door-to-door in black neighborhoods all over the south. The couple also gave demonstrations in African-American churches, utilizing the strong community networks of African-American society to promote her products. From Colorado, the family’s home base, her daughter managed the mail orders that came in from the product advertisements.

An Advocate for Women in Business

Madam Walker’s desire to contribute to society was evident early in her business career. She provided African American women with the desperately-needed employment and educational opportunities that she had lacked while growing up. She said, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.” Soon she built a factory, beauty school and hair salon in Indianapolis, which trained thousands of African American women as “beauty culturists” to use the “Walker Method” of hair care.

In a way, Madam Walker followed the philanthropic model established by her friend Booker T. Washington, who had advised southern blacks to “cast down your buckets where you are.” She aided her fellow African- American women by providing educational and professional opportunities within their own communities. Like the Avon company but long before Mary Kay, Madam Walker championed women in business, first by providing training and incentive bonuses for successful African-American saleswomen, and then by organizing her sales force into local clubs and the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents.

She frequently explained her success by drawing upon her own experience of oppression, and in a 1912 speech to the National Negro Business League said,

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

A Philanthropic Role Model

From her position of influence, she began philanthropic work that focused on service to the larger African-American community. She later said, “You might say that I was the first and caused others to awaken to the sense of their duty in helping deserving causes for the benefit of the race.”

Madam Walker stands next to Booker T. Washington with other leaders of the black community in the United States in 1913.

Madam Walker’s philanthropic activity addressed many African- American needs. She provided a large part of the funds for the establishment of a branch of the YMCA in the black neighborhoods of Indianapolis and funded settlement houses in urban areas.

Education was of particular interest to her, and she funded scholarships for black students at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, and supported several African American churches and schools, including Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Education and Industrial School for Negro Girls (today known as Bethune-Cookman University). She also championed African American culture by supporting black musicians, especially after she moved to New York City.

An American Champion

She was also a popular public speaker. During World War I, she helped lead the Circle for Negro War Relief and joined the Executive Committee of the NAACP. She was known for making the preservation of Frederick Douglass’s house possible and for donating $5000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign, the largest single contribution it had yet received.

Madam C.J. Walker steered her own course both behind the wheel and in business.

Though she died prematurely in 1919 at age 51, Madam C.J. Walker is an inspirational example of how much philanthropic women can contribute in matters that are often overlooked by larger society. She once told an audience:

“I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”

Though she was speaking of African-Americans, her words also spoke for American women of all races who began to see outside the domestic sphere in the early 20th century and learned to exercise their growing financial muscle to improve the lives of others.Read More