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Empowering Women in Philanthropy

The Feminist Difference

Since its inception, the women's movement a in the United States has had to look outside traditional sources of funding for its survival. Typically, that has meant earning the financial support of individual women donors. Today, more than ever, women must continue to help feminist programs take hold and thrive.

A Tradition of Women Helping Women

In the early part of this century, women benefactors such as Anne Morgan, the niece of J.P. Morgan, played an important role during strikes by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and other women's labor groups. Many women of means sold off family property to provide bail money for arrested strikers.

Suffragists were supported by the commitment of such philanthropists as Alva Belmont, who purchased the Sewall-Belmont house in Washington, DC to provide a permanent headquarters for the National Women's Party. Similarly, Frank Leslie, the wealthy woman publisher of Leslie's Weekly, left two million dollars in 1914 to the National Women's Suffrage Association 'for the furtherance of women's suffrage." Her bequest is believed to be the single largest gift to the feminist movement up to that time.

Other women provided the financial support for the rallies and parades that gave the suffragist movement important visibility. It was the gifts of wealthy women supporters that helped put the suffrage movement over the top.

Throughout the Twentieth century, women benefactors continued to advance women's causes. It was a woman - Katherine Dexter McCormick - who gave the 2 million dollars necessary for oral contraceptive research when no one else had the courage or vision to do so. Her anonymous gift was key for the development of the birth control pill.

Women's Funds Are Growing

Frustration with the gender bias of traditional charities has given rise to a variety of feminist-based women's foundations.

Among the first women's charities was the American Association of University Women's Educational Fund, founded in 1888 by the Associate of Collegiate Alumnae, a predecessor of the AAUW.

According to the National Network of Women's Funds, there are now more than 60 feminist funds that have programs up and running or are in the process of developing programs designed particularly for women and girls. These funds support direct care for survivors of rape, incest and domestic violence, family planning, and child care. They have also funded opportunities for women and girls in leadership, education, and economic betterment and serve as advocates in the areas of discrimination and reproductive rights.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of these organizations is that they tend to be more inclusive in terms of race, ethnic origin, sexual preference, physical and mental ability, age and socioeconomic background than philanthropies that are more "broad-based" and mainstream."

Locally based, most are focused on the specific needs of the constituencies they serve. Many develop new approaches to problems facing women and girls that can be applied nationwide.

(Empowering Women in Philanthropy, The Empowering Women Series, No. 3; A Publication of the Feminist Majority Foundation, 1991.)