Led to Equality

A new history reveals the wealthy philanthropists behind suffrage and other feminist advances

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It’s August 18, 1920, and suffragist Alice Paul, leader of the Woman’s Party of America, is standing on the front balcony of its national headquarters, cradling a banner in her arms. With an audience gathered below, she eases to the edge, loosens her grip, and lets the banner unfurl. There are 36 stars, representing 36 states needed to ratify the 19th Amendment that will grant women the right to vote throughout the land.

Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870-1967 By Joan Marie Johnson

What Paul said to her compatriots from her perch that day is lost to history. Perhaps she thanked them for their tireless advocacy, lobbying, and organizing. Maybe she harkened back to the early founders of the women’s suffrage movement, remembering those who passed on before the dream was completed. Maybe she reminded everyone of all the progress still to be made, the fights to come.

Whatever her reflection in that moment, odds are she didn’t say this: “We all know this wouldn’t have happened without the commitment of a handful of wealthy donors.”

That would not have gone over well. But it would have been true. And in Funding Feminism Joan Marie Johnson has the paper trail to prove it.

Although the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, was in 1848, only three states in the West (Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah) had granted women the right to vote by 1900. With the Constitutional amendment “stalled” and “unable to pass in any new states,” the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was concerned about money, the tool Susan B. Anthony called “the vital power of all movements—the wood and water of the engine.” Anthony spent an inordinate amount of time fundraising, complaining that “my spiritual, intellectual, and physical strength has been expended in the anxiety over getting the money to pay for the Herculean work that has been done in our movement.”

After Anthony’s death in 1906, her successors pursued a new fundraising strategy. According to Johnson, “suffragists eventually realized that raising sizable amounts of money with only the small gifts of large numbers of women was not feasible; the movement instead came to depend on a small number of women to write large checks.” In today’s parlance, they shifted from a grassroots fundraising plan to one centered around major donors.

And my, they were interesting donors. Alva Smith was one of four daughters of a wealthy slaveholding family in Alabama. Soon after the family moved to New York they encountered trouble: Alva’s mother died, and the family finances crumbled. On the edge of bankruptcy, Alva married William Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. That fixed her money problems for life (though William was sexually faithless and she divorced him and later remarried, becoming Alva Belmont).

In 1909 Belmont proposed a plan to take NAWSA in a new direction—literally. She wanted it to move its headquarters from Ohio to New York City. And she was willing to pay for the new digs, furnish them, and fund a salaried press bureau which she believed could command from the Big Apple “the type of publicity necessary to start winning victories for woman suffrage.” While there were complaints and concerns about wealthy “society” women having inordinate sway over leadership, the organization made the move.

Belmont’s demands didn’t stop there. She decreed who was to hold what position within the organization, and how and when the board would meet. These actions and others like it increased the temperature at NAWSA, with some socialists claiming that their speakers were sidelined in order not to upset Belmont and the monied ladies.

But criticism over Belmont and her restricted giving eased when another deep-pocketed donor got herself elected to office at NAWSA. Katharine McCormick, wife of Stanley McCormick of the International Harvester fortune, also had strong opinions, including that the organization’s revenue-losing publication, Woman’s Journal, had to be spun off. She was responsible for raising funds and tracking expenditures, and “worried constantly about funding.” She refused to hire organizers and public speakers unless the association had the funds in hand to pay them. When times were lean (and in McCormick’s eyes they always were), she often supplied money herself rather than haggle for gifts from others.

Eventually these two major donors would butt heads, in disagreements over the role of Paul. For many at NAWSA, including McCormick, Paul took too “militant” a stance. She advocated “punishing the political party in power” with picketing, parades, and opposition campaigns. Effigies of President Wilson were burned from time to time. So opponents gave Paul her own affiliate, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, and let her lead it as a subsidiary of sorts, with a whopping $10 budget and an out-of-date prospect list of sympathizers thought to be living in Washington, D.C.

But Paul proved better at raising money than NAWSA, and gained $25,000 in gifts in a short period of time. McCormick tried everything to get control of those funds—public statements questioning the accounting practices at the Congressional Union, claims that donations were accidentally sent to Paul instead of the NAWSA office, making snide remarks about Paul’s spending habits. In response, Paul left NAWSA to run what was now a rival organization with more financial momentum.

Belmont turned out to be one of Paul’s donors. She approved of “militant” tactics, and soon transferred her entire allegiance to what Paul renamed the “Woman’s Party of America.” Belmont kept the group afloat for years. Despite their close alliance Belmont clashed with Paul on a number of questions, but Paul navigated these with the deftness of an astute development officer.

Eventually, NAWSA developed a new strategy funded by a $1 million contribution from another donor. The two organizations labored in parallel, amidst many arguments about the suffrage movement’s goals, scope, tactics, staff salaries, you name it. And donors were right in the thick of it all. Johnson credits the eventual passage of female suffrage to “the significant influx of women’s enormous donations, and the officers, salaries, tactics, and strategies they underwrote.”

What is delightful about Johnson’s book is the details on donor activism that she records. And not just in the suffrage movement—her book also includes chapters on the female funders of women’s colleges, their prying opening of men’s colleges to women, the labor organizing that women paid for, and their support of birth control. In each chapter, the thesis is the same: these large changes “were only achieved with the finances and work of women philanthropists.” The donors profiled range from the very well-known to the highly obscure.

Other histories of feminism downplay “the role of wealthy women,” Johnson notes, preferring to emphasize instead political leaders and grassroots activities. The same neglect of funders afflicts other writing today on what drives societal reform. Luckily for us, Johnson doesn’t make that common mistake. She shows us how the feminist movement actually achieved its goals, not how it should or might have. That is a service to all who want to understand culture change, and how it becomes real.