Funding Feminism: Unearthing the History of Women’s Philanthropy

When I became interested in women’s philanthropy, one of the first questions I wanted to answer was about who started the funding of feminist-strategy giving. It was surprising and disheartening to learn that there were very few accounts of the history of women’s funding for women. So imagine my delight when I heard about the publication of Joan Marie Johnson’s book, Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870-1967Her work in creating this history performs the desperately-needed public service of raising the profile of historical women who paved the way for gender equality, and a world where feminist leadership would set higher standards for civil society.

Johnson, who is a historian and Faculty Program Coordinator for the office of the Provost at Northwestern University, does a stunning job of bringing to life the many activist and champions of women’s rights throughout this period of history. But the book also has larger aspirations:

By placing wealthy women front and center, this book wrestles with questions of money and power.  It focuses on society’s resentment and discomfort with affluent women, and the very nature of feminism itself as a nonhierarchical movement.

Johnson goes on to contend that “women need to continue to use the power of money to challenge lingering discrimination.” This is the same conclusion I have arrived at, having spent the last three years learning about progressive women’s philanthropy and its power to shape communities and economies worldwide.

Johnson starts out with chronicling the funding for women’s suffrage, and identifies key common themes in the writings and speeches of these women: “a need for political equality for educated and working women honed from a desire for financial independence, and a belief in the equality of the sexes.”

Johnson also discusses the way in the which the writing of the history of suffrage previously marginalized the role of wealthy women, partly because of resentments of movement participants toward the wealthy women donors who made the work possible. Only now are historians beginning to unravel the stories of monied women and their role in shaping the movement. Johnson convincingly argues that without the significant influx of cash from wealthy women donors, Suffrage would not have passed when it did.

Johnson’s history also gives us some of the numbers in terms of the amounts that early feminist philanthropists contributed. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) raised “an incredible $682,500 (approximately $12.5 million in 2016) for its successful 1917 referendum campaign for the right of women to vote.”

In Funding Feminism, Johnson fills in much more of the details about who these women were, including what kind of educations they had, which varied widely, from women with graduates degrees including an MD and a PhD, to women with little or no formal education. The book also fleshes out the roles that famous women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony played in fundraising, realizing how critical it was to their success, and how the new leadership of Alice Paul fueled the effort with new tactics and strategies.

Many unique heroines of women’s history are surfaced in the book, including Mrs. Frank Leslie (born Miriam Folline), “who donated more money than any other individual to the movement,” and who changed her name to Frank Leslie upon the death of her husband in 1880. She then took over his publishing business and turned it into a “profitable enterprise.”

Other fascinating women profiled in Funding Feminism include Grace Hoadley Dodge, who founded the Working Girls’ Society and led the YWCA to unite its two separate branches. Dodge was one of the early leaders of women’s philanthropy to emphasize the collaborative nature of women’s relationships, seeing herself as indebted to working girls in society. “Because my father and grandfather worked and because they have accumulated funds, am I not owing more to the busy girls than they owe to me,” wrote Dodge in a column called “Sisterhood and Cooperation” that ran in 42 newspapers.

Funding Feminism’s epilogue brings us up to date with some of the vocal leaders of women’s philanthropy today, and highlights the way that nonprofits and PACs that support more women in political office, most notably Emily’s List, have played an essential role in advancing social change for women. The epilogue also discusses the critical role that the Ms. Foundation has played in funding national awareness and change around reproductive rights, domestic and sexual abuse, and equal employment opportunities for women. It also calls attention to the important role that research on women’s philanthropy is assuming in the academic landscape, with the founding of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.

Johnson’s book is a strong reminder of the progress that women have made in the past 150 years, and I believe it will fuel awareness about the need for more women to give major gifts for gender equality today. In the words of Swanee Hunt, sister of Helen LaKelly Hunt, and major philanthropist for women’s causes: “When serious women support serious issues with serious money, that’s serious change.”


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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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