Anonymous Gifts Powered the Fight for the Women’s Vote

Anonymous Gifts Powered the Fight for the Women’s Vote

Mar 31, 2021 Patrice Onwuka

Women’s History Month offers a great time to reflect on how principles of philanthropic freedom advanced the cause of equality for women in our nation.

Women enjoy the same rights men do today, but it has been a century-long fight led by courageous women who broke societal rules (and even the law) to ensure women could fully exercise constitutional rights and freedoms.

The National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was the leading organization in the suffrage movement. It was formed in 1890 from a merger between two rival factions--the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) led by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell and Julia Ward Howe. NAWSA secured women’s enfranchisement by orchestrating successful state campaigns and passage of the 19th Amendment.

To mobilize millions of women across the country, NAWSA depended on the charitable gifts of Americans who believed in the cause of equality and advancement for females. Some of those gifts came from anonymous sources.

For example, Swiss donor Pauline Agassiz Shaw was well known for institutionalizing kindergartens in Boston and establishing schools for immigrants. Less known is how critical her anonymous gifts were to the suffragists. Shaw reportedly gave the National American Women’s Suffrage Association $30,000 (worth over $707,700 in 2016) which funded over 75% of the  NAWSA budget in 1913. Her gift funded organizers’ travel to nearly a dozen states and quietly paid the salaries of organizers in her home state of Massachusetts.

Margaret Olivia Sage, the widow of former Wall Street investor Russell Sage, was also a well-known philanthropist supporting higher education for women at the turn of the 20th century. While her husband was miserly and didn’t allow the couple to give away much, following his death Sage inherited $75 million, which she promptly started to donate. Her charitable gifts to universities, hospitals and other organizations were publicized, but she insisted her gifts to suffrage organizations be kept secret. Sage’s largest gift to NAWSA was $20,000 given anonymously.

NAWSA’s prime communication tool with the masses was kept afloat by a modest but important donation from one of its very own. Katherine Dexter McCormick, the widow of the heir to the International Harvester fortune, became the vice president and treasurer of NAWSA and funded the association’s publication, the Women’s Journal. Though effective, the publication had fallen into debt and the organization faced difficulty raising the funds to keep it going.

During a board meeting, as members pondered how they would tackle a $5,000 debt, McCormick offered a $6,000 check to pay the debt and fund the publication’s operations for the next year, adding, “And, I beg you, please keep my donation anonymous.” Later, she would found the League of Women Voters, fund essential research that led to the discovery and development of a birth control pill, and, as one of the first women to attend Massachusetts Institute for Technology, create the first women’s dormitory at MIT, increasing women’s enrollment substantially.

Many wives of business tycoons who bankrolled the suffrage movement did so publically, but there are others who chose to keep their gifts quiet. Not surprising because suffragists faced significant opposition. The suffrage movement was also not without its own controversies; some of the leaders opposed franchisement for Black citizens and even treated Black suffragists as second-class citizens.

Nonetheless, donor anonymity played a role in supporting the suffrage movement as it did with other unpopular political causes that advanced the ball of equality in America, like the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. Without the ability to give privately, it’s possible these causes may not have had the resources to be effective or even exist.