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Will Women Fund Their Own Revolution?

by Helen LaKelly Hunt

Helen LaKelly Hunt

There is a nursery rhyme that I heard often as a child:

The King is in his counting house
Counting out his money.
The Queen is in the parlor
Eating bread and honey.

It epitomizes how I was taught to handle money; specifically, I wasn’t taught to handle it at all. In the patriarchal oil family in which I grew up, my father and brother were solidly ensconced in the counting house, while my mother, my sister, and I were left in the parlor with our bread and honey. As a young woman in Dallas, Texas, I grew up thinking this picture was perfectly normal. It was simply the truth as I understood it. “Money” was a taboo word. For me, stepping outside of the parlor to become a feminist activist in philanthropy required a shift in consciousness that was new to women of my class. But it is spreading. The potential scope and impact of this new consciousness have provocative and world-changing implications.

A few key experiences stand out as critical to my own awakening. First, against the advice of my family and husband, I took a job as a teacher in a low-income neighborhood in Dallas. This introduced me to the reality of the disproportionate way resources are allocated, awakening in me the desire to help bring about justice. Second, my first husband and I divorced, which threw me into the world of being a single parent. And then one day, I was reading Forbes Magazine, and I saw my name in it with a notation about how much I was worth. I was stunned because I didn’t know where this money was. Neither did my sister. Our brother’s fraternity brother was the trustee of our trust, and initially, we couldn’t get access to our money. Dealing with this, to gain control of my assets and give to what I cared about, was radicalizing.

Money brought me into feminism. Yet several years ago, as I researched nineteenth-century feminism, I was astonished to learn that few women of wealth funded suffrage. Many women gave their time, energy, and passion. They went to prison and suffered through hunger strikes. Yet their forbearance was met with precious little funding. As suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage eloquently stated, “Why is it every day I read in the newspaper of another woman making bequests to yet another museum . . . but women fail to understand the cause that underlies all others in importance, women’s rights?” In fact, in 1857, the movement was so financially pressed that the annual national convention was cancelled. “In this bleak moment,” writes historian Sally Roesch Wagner, “not a single woman of wealth stepped forward, pocketbook in hand. It was men who did.” Francis Jackson of Boston gave $5,000 in 1858, followed the next year by Charles Hovey and then Matthew Vassar, whose $400,000 bequest founded the eponymous college for girls, which he said would be “equal in all respects to Yale and Harvard.”

The suffragists challenged their wealthy sisters, saying, as Roesch Wagner writes, “Is it not strange that women of wealth are constantly giving large sums of money to endow professorships and colleges for boys exclusively . . . and yet give no thought to their own sex—crushed in ignorance, poverty, and prostitution. . .?” The richest woman in America at the time, Hetty Green, contributed nearly $400,000 to construct a boys’ school in New York State. Another woman of wealth, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, gave a million dollars to various causes, but not to women. After the Civil War this pattern began to change. But as Kathleen McCarthy, a historian of philanthropy, writes, “Ironically, female donors often reserved their largest gifts for organizations headed by men, many of which discriminated against women.”

The turn of the century boded well: In 1914, Mrs. Frank Leslie gave over a million dollars to Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, thus enabling the movement to win the right to vote. But that did not catalyze a larger response. And in the yeasty days of the 1960s women’s movement, women of wealth still did not step forward with funding. In the midst of the tumult, as women broke the chains on their minds and bodies, women of wealth’s “golden handcuffs” were still in place. Women have historically sought security through relationships with the men of their class and perpetuated the status quo. Not only are women born to wealth no exception, but they may feel that they have more to lose by disrupting the social order. In fact, by and large, lower-income women donate a much larger percentage of their income than women of high net worth. Even up to the moment, McCarthy notes, “women’s largest gifts still flow into more traditional areas” that do not focus on women or girls.

Women’s funds—public charities that serve women and girls—didn’t really start to take off until the 1980s. In the seventies and eighties, only three percent of all philanthropic dollars were earmarked for programs that directly benefited women and girls, even though women shoulder a greater percentage of total worldwide poverty. It has been documented that helping women helps their families, and helping families helps society. So, to make matters worse, those who were suffering the most, who held the key to lifting families and communities out of poverty, were directly receiving the least.

Only gradually, spurred by the breakthrough contributions of women such as Alida Rockefeller Messinger and Sallie Bingham, did women of wealth break down the door of the counting house and give substantially to their sisters through women’s funds. In the 1980s, my sister, Swanee, and I participated in the founding of several women’s funds around the country. Today there are more than ninety women’s funds in the United States and another twenty throughout the world. Since their emergence, women’s funds have raised more than $450 million in assets and, collectively, given away $400 million in grants.

A quiet and significant revolution has begun—one that I want to see become a roaring engine of cultural change. In a conversation with Patti Chang, then-president of the California Women’s Foundation, she told me that “a handful of women have given to women’s funds at the one-million-dollar level.” Only a handful, but it was a head-turning moment for me. I discovered that forty women had given to women’s funds at this level. For women donors to identify with women rather than with the supposed privileges of the parlor opens an unprecedented possibility for global transformation.

Throughout history, women’s alignment with the status quo rather than with other women has made solidarity impossible and change painfully slow. It has taken two centuries and two waves of feminism to build the basic infrastructure of political, legal, educational, and economic opportunity to enable a shift in consciousness among very privileged women. Women now have personal power and control over their finances. But as suffragist Gage noted, “Who would be free must contribute towards that freedom.” Women of wealth will never be fully free of their golden handcuffs unless they contribute to the liberty and dignity of all women—joining in women’s funds and supporting our struggling sisters. Women have to step out of the parlor to enter the stream of history and change its course. It is time, once and for all, to set aside the honey and taste an even sweeter victory.

Helen LaKelly Hunt, Phd, founder of The Sister Fund, is also cofounder of the Women Moving Millions campaign, an initiative for the advancement of women’s lives through a massive change in philanthropic giving to girls and women. An inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she is the author of Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance (Atria, 2004).


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This article is from
The Cosmos, the Psyche & YOU