Feminist Flurry From the Ford Foundation

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1972

In 1972, Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy pledged “to investigate grantmaking possibilities in the area of women’s rights and opportunities.” Between that moment and the end of the 1970s, dedicated women’s programs accounted for more than one out of every 20 dollars the foundation spent.

At first, the Ford Foundation moved to create special programs within organizations it already supported. So the Women’s Rights Project was promoted at the American Civil Liberties Union. The Minority Women’s Employment Program was funded at the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, and the Chicana Rights Project got money at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The most influential of these was the ACLU project, co-founded in 1972 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg’s strategy was to file lawsuits based on a new reading of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, leading the courts to wipe out gender distinctions in everything from employment rules to family law. In 1993, Ginsburg became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1980, Ford’s trustees turned up the flow of money even further, committing the foundation to spending more than 10 percent of its resources on explicit women’s causes. In addition to paying for various legal challenges, the foundation put money into supporting abortion, research on sex stereotypes, and increasing female leadership at unions. By 1986, Ford had spent $70 million in these areas, and women constituted a majority of its professional staff. “Ford’s early funding for women’s organizations and women’s issues,” philanthropic consultant Mary Ellen Capek concluded, “lent credibility” to feminist organizations.