A Brief History Of Local Female Philanthropists
By Gregg Tripoli, Executive Director, Onondaga Historical Association

Women have a long history of philanthropy in Syracuse and Central New York. Women who saw a need to support and encourage others took upon themselves great societal challenges to help their neighbors cope and thrive and to make their communities better places to live.

Over the years, philanthropy, in general, has been shaped by the culture and the social norms of the time in which it took place. Of course, it was further influenced by the particular life experiences of the individual philanthropist. Historian Nancy Hewitt said that, in general, particular philanthropic ventures are shaped by "gender, racial, ethnic, and class relations rooted in structures of social, political, and economic power." This is especially true for the female philanthropists of the 19th and early 20th centuries – a progressive era that witnessed great change in the role of women in society and in how that role influenced their philanthropy as society evolved and as women gained more rights and more self-consciousness.

During that progression though, there is no mistaking that some of the female philanthropy of the 19th century would, today, be considered elitist and morally authoritarian and, in many cases, even misguided. Historically, women were the primary institution builders for philanthropic causes and, for the most part, these institutions arose from seriously altruistic intentions, but in the context of the local culture and social norms of the time, there were certain segments of the population that were minimized, or even adversely affected.

For example: although Central New York was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, philanthropy to benefit minority populations is conspicuous by its absence from the great majority of organized philanthropic societies and associations in the 19th century, which were usually started by white middle and upper class women. There were concerted efforts to "benefit" Native Americans but this generally involved efforts to purge them of their native traditions (by any means necessary) in order to absorb them into the mainstream of white American Christian culture.

In the 19th century, one of the great minority classes, of course, consisted of women themselves. Let's face it – it was definitely a man's world and women, on the whole, were subordinate to men. For some women of the 19th century, philanthropy, particularly financial philanthropy gave them the ability to compensate for their own frustrations about being subordinate to men by participating in the subordination of others – even other women. The New York Women's Hospital, for example, which was founded and funded by women and even had a board of lady managers was involved in practices that are seriously disturbing to the feminists and humanitarians of today. Historian and women's specialist, Ruth Crocker states that, "white women's rights sometimes rested historically on the immiseration of other women."

What is most important to acknowledge and remember, however, is that the vast majority of truly charitable and humanitarian organizations in existence in our community today that benefit all mankind would never have begun at all without the women of the 19th century. Though these organizations, their methods, and their beneficiaries have changed with the times, it was women, who without access to capital, took it upon themselves to do what they could to benefit others.

From the early years of Syracuse and Central New York, as in the rest of the country, female philanthropy centered on Volunteer Associations, which were started by women, mostly religious women. These Associations were carried on from private homes or church basements – far from the plush offices and board rooms of their influential, moneyed male counterparts. These volunteers were involved in creating an infrastructure that eventually led to institution building. Many of our charitable organizations in existence today, from the Rescue Mission to the Syracuse Home Association, were started by women and their Volunteer Associations.

Volunteering was a particularly proper and acceptable activity for the 19th century woman and, for the elite classes, it was expected. The perception of women as more kind-hearted, compassionate, benevolent, and giving than men made the sacrifice of self, or substance, especially appropriate and was, in fact, considered, according to Croker," the essence of Christian womanliness". In the 19th century, charitable activity and Volunteer Associations also allowed women to have a more extensive public and social life, to get out of the house and, in a way, overcome some of the legal and social barriers that the time would have otherwise imposed.

There is, of course, another very good reason why female philanthropy was rooted almost entirely in volunteerism – women did not have access to money. By 1860, women constituted only 5.6% of wealth holders in the U.S. At the time, our culture was not very comfortable with the relation between females and finance. In general, women who worked, invested, or speculated for the purpose of accumulating wealth ran the risk of being considered unnatural or unfeminine. Once the Voluntary Associations they started became public institutions they were inevitably run by men. Wealth accumulation was strictly a man's realm and, although women were certainly allowed to work (in some occupations), if they were married or lived with their fathers, they were mostly required to hand over their salaries to the man of the house.

At the time, the vast majority of women's wealth was a result of inheriting or marrying into fortunes. But for many of these women, this money gave them the ability to take female philanthropy, and their causes, into a new realm, opening doors to activism and reform, where institutions were not only built by women, but sustained and run by them as well. Of course, in a study of philanthropy, it matters less how you got it than what you did with it.

At first, women often gave to their husband's causes or to memorialize their fathers, in addition to their own volunteer organizations – usually to benefit children, the sick and the elderly. Eventually, more individual, esoteric beneficiaries appeared such as the arts and culture. Education was a popular beneficiary though, again, at first they were the schools of husbands and fathers or big-name schools (none of which accepted females) that provided a certain air of prestige and renown for the donor, and gave them the sense of power and authority that they had been denied. As time went on, female philanthropists became more concerned with women's causes such as education for women, suffrage, the right to vote, the ability to control their own resources, and equality. As we move further into the 20th century, minority causes and organizations with a wider geographic scope, like national or international relief agencies, became more prevalent.

We will see these trends as we take a closer look and highlight a few individual female philanthropists from our local history to show how their lives and times influenced their giving and what impact their particular philanthropy had on our community. Most of these women had a long history of volunteer activity during their lifetimes but, with some exceptions, the historical record of their financial philanthropy deals mainly with the distribution of their estates, as directed by their Last Will & Testaments.

The Women's Fund of Central New York is a component fund of the Central New York Community Foundation.

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