Isabella Graham was born in Scotland to a comfortable family of strict Presbyterian beliefs. After she moved to the New World, her husband died just before the birth of their fifth child. Destitute, she returned to Scotland, lived in poverty for some years, and slowly revived her finances through schools she founded. She then returned to America, succeeded with another school, and in retirement devoted herself to philanthropy. With some friends and relatives she founded and led the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, one of the nation’s earliest charities and also one of the first notable enterprises in America to be led by women.
In its first winter, the society helped 98 widows with 223 children, and in three years it was serving 150 widows with 420 young children. The group was supported by voluntary subscriptions, and sought widows who “would rather eat their own bread, hardly earned, than that of others with idleness.” The aid it provided was nearly all in kind: food, coal, as well as cloth and spinning wheels that could be used for the family’s needs and to generate income. Volunteers investigated potential clients to see if alcohol problems existed and if the widows had family members who could be assisting them. The Society also helped widows find employment.
- David Schneider, The History of Public Welfare in New York State, 1609-1866 (Patterson Smith, 1969)
- Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (University of Chicago Press, 2005)