History of Women and Philanthropy in the United States

Updated: Mar 21

History of Women and Philanthropy in the United States


Women’s History Month provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the many, often under-recognized, ways in which the generosity of women has shaped our nation. As a woman-owned business and an all-female law firm, the Legal for Good team wants to highlight how women have sculpted the nature and inner-workings of philanthropy in the United States. The timeline below merely scratches the historical surface of American women and philanthropy.




In the Beginning:

There is no way to pinpoint when philanthropy “began” for women in the United States. Women were undoubtedly donating their time and money long before the Declaration of Independence was signed. In this early era, women’s focus in philanthropy was often responding to world tragedies, such as disease, natural disaster, and war. An early example of American women in philanthropy was the creation of the Society for the Relief of Poor Women and Children by Isabella Marshall Graham. This organization was spurred by the rise of Yellow Fever. Graham, alongside more than a dozen other women, led the organization and provided aid to hundreds of widowed women and children. This benevolent society set the stage for women to be leaders in philanthropy.


Late 1800s and early 1900s:

The late 1800s and early 1900s expanded the scope of women’s roles in philanthropy with wealthy women making considerable charitable donations. A notable example of this is Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire in the United States. After building her fortune as an entrepreneur in Black haircare, Walker demonstrated her immense generosity through funding educational scholarships and making large donations to organizations such as the NAACP and the Black YMCA. Another illustration is Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, who inherited $63 million in 1906 following the death of her robber baron husband. Sage, who was formerly a teacher, focused a large part of her philanthropy on increasing women’s access to higher education. She made large donations to universities such as Yale, Princeton, Cornell, and Syracuse. These gifts went toward creating endowed scholarships for women and building female dorms. Along the same vein, Oseola McCarty was a prominent donor to the University of Southern Mississippi. However, unlike the others, McCarty was not wealthy; she was a washerwoman who saved up her wealth before donating $150,000 to USM.


1970s:

In response to the rise of second wave feminism, the 1970s marked a boom in organizations dedicated to advancing women’s rights. The National Organization of Women (NOW), the National League of Women Voters, and the Women’s Action Alliance were founded during this time. Combahee River Collective and the National Black Feminist Organization were also founded during this time with the purpose of combating the racism women of color faced, including bigotry faced in the many predominantly white feminist organizations.


Today:

Fast forward to today. Without a doubt, women are recognized as philanthropic leaders. Wealthy women such as Melinda French Gates, Sara Blakley, and MacKenzie Scott have pledged to give away a majority of their immense fortunes during their lifetimes. MacKenzie Scott has made waves with her no-strings attached approach to philanthropy that recognizes community leaders as those best equipped to understand their communities’ unique needs. However, women across America, not only billionaires, are leading the way in philanthropy. Studies published by The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University consistently show that women are more likely than men to both give to charity as well as to volunteer.


We honor and thank these women for their ingenuity, perseverance, and leadership in philanthropy. In our next blog, we will address how you can make the most of your philanthropic gifts.

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