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Sustaining the Feminist Movement: Generations of women donors are building lasting change


IN THE EARLY 1900S, KATHARINE DEXTER McCormick, a biology major from Chicago and one of just a handful of women at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to take on the university’s administration. In those days, women were required to wear hats to class—even in science laboratories. McCormick, the daughter of wealthy, progressive parents, protested that the fabrics and feathers were a fire hazard in the lab. After some debate, M.I.T. backed down, abolishing the silly, dangerous rule.

This early incident foreshadowed McCormick’s lifelong commitment to women’s equality: She became a pioneering feminist philanthropist, singlehandedly funding the research and development of the birth-control pill. And she wasn’t the only woman of her time opening her purse for women’s rights. A century ago, women of means with a political or social-improvement agenda often put their money where their mouths were. Whether their wealth came through inheritance, business success or divorce settlements, women philanthropists played important roles in shaping America’s reform movements in education, health, welfare and, especially, women’s voting rights.

At the turn of the 19th century, for example, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was the principal benefactor of the women’s suffrage movement, while famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony put up funds from her life-insurance policy to guarantee that women could be admitted to the University of Rochester. Katharine Drexel provided education for girls of American Indian and African American backgrounds; Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage endowed the social science/social welfare reform foundation that still bears her late husband Russell Sage’s name. And highly successful businessperson Madame C. J. Walker invested in black colleges—especially one in Florida that was established by civil rights advocate Mary McLeod Bethune.

With the advent of the Second Wave of the women’s movement, mainstream philanthropy, too, paid attention to leveling the playing field for women. Major foundations such as Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller—whose white male founders had not been prominent advocates for women’s equality—were nonetheless in the vanguard of funding projects to advance the life chances of girls and women. The Rockefeller family has provided significant support to the African American women’s college Spelman; the Ford Foundation can take real credit for developing the field of women’s studies both in the U.S. and overseas; and the Carnegie Corporation, in the 1970s and 1980s, focused on advancing women’s leadership.

Even so, the 1980 report Far from Done, issued by the now-defunct organization Women and Foundations/Corporate Philanthropy, noted that only 6 percent of all foundation dollars were directed to projects aimed at specifically women and girls. While several major foundations were paying attention to “women’s issues,” the vast majority of the almost 90,000 private U.S. foundations were not.

So where are the philanthropic McCormicks, Sages and Walkers these days? After all, women now constitute 45 percent of millionaires in the U.S. And this percentage is likely to rise with increasing numbers of women making significant fortunes in high tech and other growth industries. In addition, since women are living longer than men, there will be more intergenerational transfers of wealth to wives, ex-wives, sisters and daughters.

You might not know many of their names (yet), but important feminist philanthropists are definitely out there, and they’re trying to change not just women’s lives but the whole notion of “women’s philanthropy”—a concept that emerged in the 1980s.

The Ms. Foundation for Women, established in 1972 as an outgrowth of Ms. magazine (but not connected to the present-day magazine), was the first of its type to focus specifically on women and girls. By 2012, the U.S. was filled with 160 women’s foundations and explicitly women’s funds—part of a Women’s Funding Network (WFN) launched in 1985. When it began, WFN served as an umbrella for just 20 organizations and $1.2 million in funds; today, the network makes $70 million in grants annually.

Another facet of women’s philanthropy today involves networks of individual women donors who take collective action on behalf of progressive causes for women and girls. The Women Donors Network, begun in 1991, now has nearly 200 individual members nationally who leverage their giving around such issues as reproductive rights and reducing gender-based violence. Women Moving Millions, started in 2007, has more than 150 members who each pledge at least $1 million over her lifetime to advance opportunities for women and girls.

To understand the new modes of women’s philanthropy, I recently interviewed several notable women donors, ranging in age from their late 30s to mid-80s and diverse in race, region and profession. With such diversity, I didn’t expect all of them to have the same view of philanthropy— more specifically feminist philanthropy—and I wasn’t wrong.

For example, while all felt comfortable claiming the label feminist, not all called themselves “feminist philanthropists.” On the one hand, Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a distinguished younger African American scholar and donor to black women’s causes and black women’s studies (particularly Spelman College), says, “I am a feminist, if by that you mean someone who believes in gender equity and eliminating all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender.”

But another younger philanthropist with whom I spoke, self-made multimillionaire Mellody Hobson, preferred to call herself a “humanist philanthropist.” The president of Ariel, a Chicago financial services firm that is one of the largest minority-owned money management companies in the U.S., says that in her industry, “discrimination based on race is far more prevalent than gender-based discrimination.” Education is her highest philanthropic priority, but not specifically for women and girls because, she noted, “minority men and boys were even more at risk of falling off the social mobility ladder which education had historically provided.”

Veteran feminists Donna Hall, president and CEO of the Women Donors Network, and Peg Yorkin—the most significant single feminist funder over the last quarter century, having given more than $15 million to the Feminist Majority Foundation—both describe themselves as feminist philanthropists, but they note that you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist philanthropist. They agree that there is such a phenomenon as women’s philanthropy, but didn’t automatically assume it was feminist in terms of funding women-specific social movements and institutions. In fact, both seem concerned that women’s philanthropy is not always as focused as it should be on funding women’s movements over a sustained period of time.

Like Hall and Yorkin, Susan Berresford—the first woman to serve as president of the nation’s second-largest philanthropy, the Ford Foundation—calls herself a feminist philanthropist, but argues that there is “much more complexity to the way in which feminist donors need to understand issues today.” She looks for philanthropists to make a more intersectional analysis of feminist issues, including LGBT rights, the underrepresentation of minority men in higher education and the overrepresentation of minority men in prison.

Jacki Zehner, a former Goldman Sachs partner who now heads Women Moving Millions, isn’t concerned about donors calling themselves feminists as long as they are advancing women’s and girls’ opportunities. “Feminism,” she told me, “is a lens through which to engage in long-term progressive change regardless of the topic… it’s not a category.” As for men participating in feminist philanthropy, she says that “fewer men donors [than women] are prioritizing women and girls, but more are [than before].”

Jennifer Buffett, part of the younger generation of women philanthropists who, with her husband, Peter (son of business magnate/philanthropist Warren Buffett), 42, cofounded the NoVo Foundation to advance opportunities for women and girls, argues that many younger men are feminist in their support for women and girls. Nonetheless, she recognizes that there is a “great imbalance between the genders—men’s impulses are more valued than women’s.” Thus she and her husband are committed to investing in women and girls so that the grantees might infuse values of collaboration and nurturing—which Jennifer Buffett associates with women—rather than the competition and violence she associates with men. “We need feminism,” Buffett concludes, “to help heal the world.”

Gretchen Wittenborn Johnson, wife of Johnson and Johnson heir Jim Johnson, is convinced that men and women donors have varied approaches to giving. “Different things motivate and drive us,” says Johnson, 70. She is a strong supporter of promoting women leaders in all sectors, especially education and the environment, while her husband does not prioritize funding women’s leadership (nor does he oppose it).

Yorkin, 86, is the most outspoken about the differences between men and women donors: “Women do it with their hearts; men with their minds.” Moreover, she observed that she gives money to “strong feminist organizations,” which she feels “isn’t always true of a newer, younger generation of donors.” What matters to Yorkin is whether women and men donors act “in a way that supports women’s empowerment.”

Feminist philanthropists appear to be doing something different in at least four ways. First, many prefer collective approaches—networks and collaborations. They like stretching their resources by leveraging other donors, and they like sharing insights and possibilities.

Second, they worry about advancing girls’ and women’s opportunities to a greater degree than does mainstream philanthropy—perhaps because they apply a “gendersensitive” lens when looking at proposals or funding approaches. Third, they are likely to involve men as allies in their efforts to “level the playing field.” This may be as simple as realizing that making more opportunities available for girls and women requires that men become engaged in feminist projects.

Finally, feminist philanthropists—if not all foundations and donors—are demanding more accountability from their grantees than in the past. They want to know what difference their funding is making, and they frequently rely on quantifiable metrics to learn what’s working. This trend seems to be especially true of women philanthropists, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Surveys conducted by the center indicate that women donors are more engaged than men in the work of their grantees, and as a result want to have a prominent role in determining how their dollars are being spent.

This is both good news and bad. The good news is that feminist projects are likely to get more serious attention from women funders (and a “few good men”) who support gender equity as a core value and are willing to take the long view. This could translate into sustained commitments and more impactful giving. It could also translate into movement building—not just funding single-issue or “siloed” projects, but organizations that tackle multiple aspects of women’s empowerment.

The downside of these trends is that “engaged” donors are tempted to dictate the outcomes of their grant-making. In keeping with feminist principles, these donors should instead trust those closest to the problems of inequity and gender-based discrimination to decide themselves what needs to be done and how. In this way, feminist donors will chart a truly path-breaking course— funding long-term projects that will inevitably shape a more humane and equitable future for us all.

ALISON R. BERNSTEIN is director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership and professor of history at Rutgers University. She is a former vice president of the Ford Foundation.

Reprinted from the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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