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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.