Everything old is new again -- the current metrics craze in philanthropy, for example, echoes the interest of early twentieth-century American philanthropists in bringing a “scientific” approach to philanthropy. And, earlier this month, Reuters published a story headlined “Women Exert New Influence on Philanthropy.” The story claims that
women are exerting a greater influence on how philanthropy is done as they accumulate wealth and use their clout to change the way funds are raised and distributed.
The truth is that women have long been philanthropists, indeed, have often been big-time philanthropists -- and not just as extensions of their husbands' philanthropy.
A preeminent example is Jane Addams, who founded the Chicago settlement Hull House in 1889. Hull House served poor and immigrant communities in Chicago until its ignoble and unexpected shuttering this spring. Jane Addams describes her vision for Hull House in her 20 Years at Hull-House, first published in 1910 (and just reissued by Empire Books).
Jane Addams was equipped with only her small inheritance, her education at Rockford Female Seminary, and her confidence in her own vision when she purchased a run-down mansion -- Hull House -- and turned it into an educational, cultural, and service center for the needy. Addams was assisted by Ellen Gates Starr in founding Hull House. Addams and Starr were unmarried and were respectively only twenty-nine and thirty years old when they undertook to found Hull House -- defying our contemporary view of Victorian women as sheltered creatures who acted only through their fathers and husbands.
At Hull House, Addams provided educational and cultural resources through a wide range of reading groups, lectures, courses, music classes, and displays. In addition to educational programs, Hull House provided for the basic wants of its constituency through its kitchen and charities. Addams’s work was so successful that the Hull House settlement expanded from its original building to a campus of thirteen buildings on its block during its first two decades. Addams insisted on the importance of place -- offering people a welcoming place to come as valued guests and neighbors -- as essential to her philanthropic vision.
Addams was animated by her vision of social progress and of “socializing democracy” -- of fostering an informed and active citizenry who would advance America towards a more free, equal, and progressive condition. For her, this meant that Hull House services directed at alleviating basic needs were never so essential as education and cultural programs. Addams’s views led her to be active in the peace movement in World War I and the women’s suffrage movement. For her work, in 1931 she became the first U.S. woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Because of her activism and views, Addams was both vilified and revered: She was dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America” by Theodore Roosevelt but lauded as “perhaps the world's best-known and best-loved woman” in her 1935 New York Times obituary.
Jane Addams is only one of many outstanding female philanthropists in America’s history. Isabelle Stewart Gardner, Addams’s precursor by twenty years, was essential to Massachusetts philanthropy for decades. Her legacy continues today in the wonderful Gardner Museum in Boston’s Back Bay. (Like Addams, Gardner was insistent on being involved in the design of the buildings that were at the center of her philanthropic vision). Clara Barton, although without her own fortune, was a philanthropic leader, for whom the establishment the Red Cross in the United States was only one of many achievements. Many women’s philanthropic groups have flourished in the United States, such as Zonta International, the women’s service organization founded in Buffalo in 1919 -- to say nothing of the many local women’s giving circles and service groups found throughout the United States.
So, yes -- many of today’s leading philanthropists are women. But that’s not new.