Helen LaKelly Hunt: Feminism and Giving in New Relationship Culture

If you spend time reading about women and philanthropy, you will invariably come across Helen LaKelly Hunt. Along with her sister, Swanee Hunt, these two feminist philanthropists are major players in the women’s funding movement, which hit the big leagues in the past decade as high-net-worth women began to make gifts of over $1 million dollars to fund causes for women and girls.  

helen lakelly hunt
Helen LaKelly Hunt

While researching for her dissertation on the origins of American feminism, Hunt discovered that 19th century women didn’t fund the suffrage movement. Instead, they funded things like their husband’s alma maters, churches (where they had no voice) and the arts. Years later, when women began pledging and making million-dollar gifts to women’s funds, Hunt captured that history in a book called the Trailblazer book, which was circulated to other women donors. This compilation of women’s testimonies helped catalyze the founding of Women Moving Millions.  

Hunt has co-founded some of the largest and most influential women’s funds in the country, including the Dallas Women’s Foundation, the New York Women’s Foundation, the Women’s Funding Network, and Women Moving Millions. In 2007, Women Moving Millions emerged on the scene with a public launch, and began a two-year campaign to raise $150 million for the global network of women’s funds. During the financial meltdown of 2008, Women Moving Millions became one of the only campaigns to exceed its fundraising goal, with a total of $182 million raised during the economic crisis.

Along with being part of the history of growing women’s funding, Helen LaKelly Hunt is also destined to rewrite the early history of feminism in America. Her forthcoming book, And the Spirit Moved Them: The Lost Radical History of America’s First Feminists, gives an up-close and personal rendition of some little-known history: the first meeting of feminists in the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women held in New York.

In the process of researching her dissertation in the Barnard Library, Hunt discovered the primary source manuscript titled Turning the World Upside Down: The Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women Held in New York City May 9-12, 1837. The men’s abolitionist movements had been all white men, and the Seneca Falls Convention was all white women. But this cross-race, cross-class meeting was so meaningful that years after the Seneca Falls Convention, feminist Lucretia Mott told Elizabeth Cady Stanton to write the history of American feminism starting at the 1837 convention, saying, “That’s where the battle began.” Ultimately, Stanton chose to start feminism’s history at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

Hunt is therefore shifting the spotlight of the history of American feminism in her forthcoming book, illustrating how its origins contained essential elements of movement building that are still relevant today.

“The window on history that I opened up in the Barnard Library unsealed a parallel window into my past,” she writes in the introduction to her forthcoming book. The window helped Hunt liberate herself from the “golden handcuffs” of gender-normed behavior that still confined her, and begin to accept more fully her power and purpose in building funding networks for women and girls. “I am grateful to be part of feminism and to add my labor to such meaningful work,” she writes.

Hunt’s research has also opened up what she sees as the next wave of feminism: Teaching the culture about the importance of relationships. “Relationality needs to be high on the agenda of the feminist movement.   Feminist activism can become siloed: focusing in fields like domestic violence, or trafficking or economic justice. A relational vision encourages intersectionality, and an understanding of how these issues resonate with one another.”

For several decades, feminist theorists such as Carol Gilligan, Robin Morgan, Judith V. Jordan, Janet Surrey, Irene Stiver, Carter Heyward, Beverly Wildung Harrison and Gloria Steinem have articulated a vision of culture that is “linked, not ranked,” as Steinem says.

“The problem is that, while women have been proponents of a relational culture, it’s only in the last 20 years that the relational sciences have developed to create tools that help people shift from conflict to connection,” said Hunt. She and her husband, Harville Hendrix, are experts in the field of relationship counseling, and are now disseminating a new process called Safe Conversations, a structured conversation that allows two people, even if they disagree, to speak with mutual respect for one another. “This helps shift the cultural dynamic from the vertical to the horizontal,” said Hunt.

“The next stage of feminism can emphasize more explicitly the primacy of relationships, and shift language away from competition and toward collaboration,” said Hunt. She sees state and city-based women’s funds as developing a new model for how foundations can be more inclusive and responsive to the particular needs of a community.

“Look at what was accomplished in the women’s funding movement,” said Hunt. “These women’s funds were not isolated: they emerged in relationship with each other, and they were all about relationships: they brought in grantees and community members to their boards, they brought in representation from populations served. They reached out to many different marginalized populations—women and girls of color, as well as women affected by poverty, by violence, by health issues.”

Hunt also sees women’s funds as playing a key role in showing the culture how women can wield financial clout. “Women’s funds have transformed women’s relationship with money from one of ignorance and ambivalence to one by which she began to unleash her voice into the culture.”

“Both philanthropy and feminism must celebrate the fact that women’s funds embodied for the culture a visionary organizing methodology, a relational vehicle for connecting all women, locally, nationally, globally, to set an important agenda,” she said.

Hunt also sees great potential for relationships to be more central to our culture in politics. “Hillary’s slogan is ‘Stronger Together’,” she said. “It’s a relational slogan. What makes us stronger together is our capacity to maintain our relationships. And only until recently has there been a relational technology that shows us how to do just that.”  

“Feminists have been a prophetic voice, warning against a culture that promotes a ‘winner take all’ and ‘get to the top of the ladder’ attitude. Both feminism and philanthropy need to promote values that strengthen the safety of the culture.”

The safety of relationships is a key area where Hunt sees philanthropy and feminism converging to foster significant change. “It’s only with safety that the world can thrive. That’s why Harville and I created Safe Conversations, which can help make that vision possible. We see ourselves as contributing to the fulfillment of a vision articulated by feminist theorists and feminist philanthropy over the past four decades.”


Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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