Charity's Daughters: The Impact of Female Philanthropy in America
Organized philanthropic activity has a significant role in the feminine domain that spans centuries. From the earliest days in America, women of wealth have carved out positions of leadership connected to their charity work, despite gender opposition, to advance a range of causes. Their contributions have had a lasting impact on the way we approach charity work and are the underpinnings of our modern social services model.
In the United States, women’s philanthropy has dramatically changed over the past 250 years. The movement began in the 1800s as women started to align their philanthropic pursuits with volunteering. In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, in a world largely defined by gender inequality, this early social service work was often seen as “women’s work.” Essentially, the history of female philanthropy started with parochial institutions, where nuns, deaconesses, and women of all faiths offered comfort to the marginalized in their communities. Religious Catholic women have been providing charitable services since the colonial era—like those from the Ursuline Order, which was connected to a French colonial New Orleans parish in the 1700s. Over the years, their work in the Catholic Church as a largely female charity organization has been instrumental in delivering necessities from food, shelter, and clothing to mental health services, affordable access to health care for the sick, and education.
Rooted in these early efforts to aid the poor and the sick are contemporary religious groups, including Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS), Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of Charity, also known as the Catholic Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. This organization and charitable resource was founded by St. Louise De Marillac and St. Vincent in France during the 1600s, with an American chapter that can be traced back to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Maryland in 1809. As part of Louise De Marillac's vision, St. Vincent de Paul is also notable for its women’s ministry, including WISH: Women In Service and Hope, and its connections to the Daughters of Charity.
During this time, women, most of them wealthy donors with the power of the purse behind them, also chose to dedicate their free time to helping soldiers and their families in response to the Civil War and other disasters. Their efforts were mostly tied to their social status as acts of charity shown toward the less fortunate. There was no discussion of the inequities that led to these acts of selflessness. As such, women of wealth were also linked to historical preservation societies such as the Daughters of the Revolution. As daughters and members, they were tasked with preserving Revolutionary War history through grassroots efforts around education, promotion, and their ongoing patriotism. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, however, these efforts were split as white women and African American women began founding charitable resource organizations apart from each other.