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.


Philanthropy in Black and White

Philanthropist Eliza Hamilton was a white American socialite and philanthropist who became co-founder and deputy director of Graham Windham, the first private orphanage in New York City in 1806. The nonprofit organization has evolved from one of the earliest orphanages in the country to become a family and youth organization with strong community outreach. Around the same time, Black women in Newport, Rhode Island founded the African Female Benevolent society in 1809. Mutual aid societies like this one were created by free Black people early on in U.S. history out of need, as public avenues to grant social assistance and other resources were controlled by white Americans. The focus of the group was to support the Black Newport community through a donation to clothe and educate underprivileged children. It was one of many short-lived institutions of its kind that made positive contributions to fund free Black and slave communities.

In 1909, philanthropist Nannie Helen Burroughs, Black educator, orator, religious leader, civil rights activist, feminist, and businessperson, founded an organization known as the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C. Burroughs’s work reflected her activism and the first of its kind for African American females. She was an equal rights advocate for all races that extended beyond the domestic sphere, providing vocational training for young women who had no other means for education to empower and prepare them for the workforce. She is also recognized as a founding member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) organization. Burroughs’s efforts are reflected in contemporary female charity organizations, such as Sisters Giving Back, founded in 2011 to empower young African American Women and girls through positive role-modeling and to help them reach their educational goals. Precious Sisters also supports low-income Kenyan girls’ secondary education through fundraising and donation.

Mary McLeod Bethune became one of the most important Black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, and government officials of the twentieth century. Bethune rose from poverty to become one of the nation's most distinguished African American leaders and the most prominent Black woman of her time. Her life encompassed three different careers: as an educator, she was the central figure in the creation of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida; as founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, she was a leading force in developing the Black women's organization movement; and in the political realm, she held influential positions in the federal bureaucracy during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration.

Talking About a Revolution

The 1960s was a momentous time for social change. Female charity organizations emerged that were supported for, and by, women and would challenge the status quo. It was a period that saw a rise in like-minded female activists in support of gender equality in both economic and intellectual opportunities, with the desire to fund their movements. The National Women's Law Center is a nonprofit organization that reflects this movement, which uses the law as an instrument to effect change for women in the areas of education, reproductive rights, better pay, gender equity, and more. Another example is the Malala Fund, which invests in local advocates in regions where girls are missing out on a secondary education due to COVID-19, to ensure they return to school. Through donor contributions, the Malala Fund works to help every young girl receive access to 12 years of free education.

Today, women’s philanthropic activities around activism have also extended their reach online as part of an extensive funding network. For example, Philanthropy Woman is a philanthropy network that launched in 2017 for women donors and allies to read about, understand, and amplify feminist philanthropy. Since 2001, Charity Navigator has also been empowering charities online through donor advocacy, giving charities the tools and support they need to connect with accountable, transparent organizations. In this way, Charity Navigator makes impactful giving easy for all donors. There's also the Global Fund for Women, which solicits donors online and uses their donations to provide flexible funding and resources for feminist activists that drive gender equity around the world.

Gender-based Activism: A Catalyst for Change

Gender-Based activism has also been the catalyst for the work of some of the most prolific charitable organizations in contemporary American life, such as the Lilly Endowment and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. This community-based foundation’s purpose is to fund and support projects that drive business entrepreneurship, health and wellness, employment, racial equity as well as access to higher education. There are opportunities that empower African Americans, Native-Americans, and Spanish-American economic independence through grant-making and other funding activities. Today there are more specialized nonprofits to empower women, such as the Fistula Foundation, which supports the medical treatment of obstetric fistula.

After the disruptions caused by COVID-19, the efforts of nonprofits are having a greater impact on community life. Modern-day, high-net-worth female philanthropists, such as Mackenzie Scott, American novelist and philanthropist, and Melinda Gates, co-chair and board member of Microsoft famous for her work as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are stepping in to fill the void through grantmaking and other activities with a profound impact on the international community.

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