March 8, 2012 marked the 103rd International Women’s Day, an annual event dedicated to celebrating and inspiring women all over the world. March is also women’s history month. How fitting, then, that the New York Times recently ran a couple of articles about the feminist icon Gloria Steinem (pictured to the right), and that on 3/19, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand officially picked up the Democratic nomination in her bid for re-election.
The theme of this year’s women’s history month was women’s education and women’s empowerment, issues that have had long and distinguished histories in the United States. Interestingly enough, Kirsten Gillibrand is an alumna of the Emma Willard School, named for its founder Emma Willard, a human rights activist who dedicated her life to women’s education. And Willard was the mentor to Olivia Slocum Sage (pictured below), a woman whose charitable work had an enormous impact on the 20th century, paving the way and setting an example for generations of female philanthropists to come.
Olivia Sage was born in 1828, the daughter of well-to-do parents who lost their fortune and struggled to make ends meet. At the age of 41, Sage—after working as a teacher for many years—married family friend and millionaire Russell B. Sage. Russell Sage was not known for his generosity, but his death in 1906 granted Olivia access to over $50 million, most of which she distributed to philanthropic causes. Olivia Sage strongly believed that her change in circumstances obligated her to help those who were less fortunate.
Although Sage did not identify as a suffragette, empowering women was one of her philanthropic priorities. When she established the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, she made sure to include women on the foundation’s board, a practice that was highly unusual at the time. Like many of her contemporaries—she was a philanthropist in the same league as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—she supported education, providing generous grants to her alma mater, and establishing Russell Sage College, a comprehensive college for women.
At the 2010 Ted Women Conference, Hillary Clinton said, “Let women work and they drive economic growth across all sectors. Send a girl to school even just for one year and her income dramatically increases for life, and her children are more likely to survive and her family more likely to be healthier for years to come.” Women’s history month is the perfect time to reflect upon the connections between women like Clinton, Steinem, Gillebrand, Willard and Sage—women who, in their efforts to empower other women, are and were able to empower themselves. It’s also a good time to acknowledge female activists and philanthropists who have helped—and continue to help—make the world a better place for women, like the lawyer and philanthropist Helen Lehman Buttenweiser, whose legal practice centered around helping women and children and preserving civil liberties. Another example is the philanthropist Rachel Mellon Walton, a major benefactor to the arts, music, medicine, education, conservation and the welfare of women. Today there’s Mavis Leno, who has been the chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan since 1997. In 1999, in a gesture that now seems way ahead of the curve, Mavis and her husband Jay Leno donated $100,000 to educating the public about the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. And last but not least, there’s Jennifer Buffett, co-chair and president of the NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on creating a more just and balanced world through cooperation and partnership, primarily through the empowerment of girls and women.
In one of the recent New York Times pieces about Gloria Steinem, the writer Sarah Hepola asked why no one has stepped in to fill Steinem’s role as the face of feminism. Steinem herself sees this as a positive thing—she believes “it’s obviously a great sign of growth and success that the media no longer try to embody the bigness and diversity of the women’s movement in one person.” In that case, perhaps there are some other questions worth asking about the future of feminism. And maybe one way to formulate those questions is to compare what women have done in the past with what we are doing in the present. To that end, here is a list of women and organizations whose contributions to female empowerment are definitely worth further investigation:
- Jane Addams
- Matilda Joslyn Gage
- Miriam “Frank” Leslie
- Tracy Gary
- Okolo Rashid
- Becky Sykes
- Julie Fisher Cummings
- Kavita Ramdas
- Helen LaKelly Hunt
- Swanee Hunt
- Kayrita M. Anderson
- Jacki Zehner
These organizations are also noteworthy:
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Marie Curie said, “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” But not every woman has access to the resources necessary to tap into those gifts, and that’s where philanthropy and advocacy enter the picture. The women discussed in this post prove that it is possible for one person to make a significant difference, to help women, past and present, obtain the tools they need to fulfill their dreams.
Lisa Stone Pritzker is an advocate for women and children's health and education.
Photos from top to bottom: Gloria Steinem and Olivia Sage.