Margaret Olivia Sage was the widow of Russell Sage, among the greatest Wall Street investors of the 19th century. When the 89-year-old financier died in 1906, he instantly made her one of the wealthiest women in the country. She in turn used her inheritance to become one of the nation’s most notable philanthropists, a patroness of higher education for women, and a leading figure in the effort to apply the social sciences to the root causes of large-scale social problems.
“One should remember,” wrote Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage in her only published work, “that in America what is called ‘blue blood’ is distributed through both classes—with a preponderance of it, perhaps, among the unmoneyed class.” It was a fact she was keenly aware of: though the Slocum and Sage families were both of distinguished stock, when she had married Russell Sage in 1869, at the age of 41, she left behind the life of a school teacher and governess struggling to support herself for that of the wife of a multimillionaire.
Sage was born in 1828 in Syracuse, New York, to Margaret and Joseph Slocum. Her father, a businessman who had benefitted from the economic boom in central New York sparked by the Erie Canal, suffered tremendous losses in the Panic of 1837. Having received a private education to that point, Olivia (as she was familiarly known) was able to borrow money from an uncle to attend Troy Female Seminary, the first institution of higher learning for women. Her introduction to the school’s founder, Emma Willard, would have a life-long influence on her. Though Willard called suffragists “hyenas in petticoats,” she was deeply committed to the cause of female education, and her school produced moral and cultural leaders who championed women’s causes in ways that often went beyond the vision of its founder.
Upon her 1847 graduation from the Troy Female Seminary, Olivia praised “our distinguished inhabitants who spend their wealth in deeds of charity,” giving evidence of the ideals she had acquired at the institution. But her family’s worsening finances caused her to spend the next 22 years working hard, first as a teacher in Syracuse and then as a governess in Philadelphia.
In 1869, her fortunes seemed to change dramatically when Russell Sage made her an offer of marriage. He was a former Congressman and the partner of hated businessman Jay Gould. Sage was himself a tight-fisted individual, and 20 years earlier, he had swindled her father. But she accepted his proposal.
Though her married life was one of financial abundance, she was not able to pursue the charitable activity that she had begun to admire even as a student. Russell Sage was notoriously stingy. A 1902 letter to the editor of the New York Times thanked the paper for the amusement it provided in chronicling his miserliness, seldom allowing “a week to pass without furnishing a new story about ‘Uncle Russ,’” for instance “how he permits his lawn grass to grow into hay for his horses.” In the 37 years of their marriage, Russell and Olivia Sage were to make only three major donations: to the Troy Female Seminary, the Women’s Hospital, and the American Seamen’s Friend Society, totaling approximately $220,000. In the years after Russell’s passing, however, Olivia made up for lost time.
Ruth Crocker, Sage’s most recent biographer, refers to the period of her marriage as one of “performative philanthropy.” In 1890, she helped to found and became the president of the Emma Willard Society, the alumni association of the Troy Female Seminary. In 1898 she made possible the publication of Emma Willard and her pupils; or, Fifty years of Troy female seminary, 1822-1872. She volunteered significant amounts of time working as a “lady manager” of the New York Women’s Hospital. And by 1894 she was sponsoring women’s suffrage meetings, motivated in part by the news that the governor of New York had vetoed the appointment of four women to Troy Female Seminary’s board of trustees.
When Russell Sage died in 1906, he left a fortune of $75 million to his wife. She proceeded to give away approximately $45 million in the next dozen years before her own death in 1918. Her donations went to a wide variety of causes, the bulk of them in relatively small amounts. Much of her philanthropy was directed towards educational institutions—including large building and program grants to Syracuse University, Cornell, Princeton, and a founding grant for Russell Sage College—but she also invested significantly in the work of religious organizations and women’s causes.
Olivia Sage is best remembered today for launching the Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment, which she endowed with $10 million in 1907. Her open-ended instructions were that “the income thereof [be] applied to the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America.” The foundation gave modest amounts directly to poor people. Its much stronger focus was to employ experts in the emerging “social sciences” to study societal problems and devise systemic, “root causes” solutions.
The Russell Sage Foundation dramatically increased the influence of the social sciences in the nation’s large foundations, and in America generally. Over many following decades it was a pioneer in encouraging the new tools of social science. In addition to supporting research and analysis, Russell Sage occasionally put social science into action in attempts to solve human problems. For instance, as an experiment in municipal planning, it purchased a large expanse of land in Queens, now known as Forest Hills Gardens, to create a model suburb following the methods of the English garden-city movement. Olivia herself put $2.75 million into the project, with a hope that it would spur many similar projects where families of modest incomes could live comfortable lives near major cities.
In 1916, together with the head of the Troy Female Seminary (now known as the Emma Willard School) Olivia Sage founded Russell Sage College, a women’s liberal arts college offering preparation for a variety of professions. Located in the buildings that the Emma Willard School had vacated six years earlier, it granted degrees under the auspices of the Willard School until it was granted its own charter in 1927.
When Olivia Sage died in 1918, a total of 19 educational institutions received equal allotments of approximately $800,000. Other organizations—including the Women’s Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, the Emma Willard School, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—received more than $1 million. The Russell Sage Foundation received a bequest of $5 million.
A “woman is responsible in proportion to the wealth and time at her command,” she wrote in a 1905 North American Review article. “While one woman is working for bread and butter, the other must devote her time to the amelioration of the condition of her laboring sister. This is the moral law.” And as soon as she had the independence to make her own choices, Olivia Sage followed those dictates of her conscience with obedient generosity.
~ Monica Klem