On October 3, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, along with the IUPUI Office for Women and the IUPUI Office of Community Engagement, sponsored an event featuring historian and author Dr. Joan Johnson about her newly-published book Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement: 1870-1967.
I sat down with Dr. Johnson to talk about her experiences researching and writing the book, as well as the impact of these women philanthropists on social movements at the time and how their actions offer insight into women’s movements today.
First, she explained how she came to the topic of wealthy women philanthropists.
“I’ve been working in women’s history since the mid-1990s. My earlier work dealt with activist women, social reformers, and women in higher education and the ways in which they were trying to change roles and opportunities for women,” Dr. Johnson said. “I realized that I needed to tell the story of how wealthy women financed this change they were advocating for. I spent a lot of time in women’s history collections and archives looking at organization records, correspondence, newspapers, and other sources of information.”
Time in these archives showed Dr. Johnson the important role these wealthy women philanthropists played in key social movements, including the suffrage movement, efforts to expand higher education opportunities for women, and the birth control movement.
“Several women, like Katherine Dexter McCormick, played an important role in all three movements,” she said. “They understood that the freedoms to vote, to get an education, and to control reproduction were all tied together.”
In that regard, the financial support these women gave to these movements proved crucial. However, even wealthy women faced challenges because of their sex.
“These women, while extremely privileged, experienced discrimination. Some were not allowed to make financial donations without the approval of a male figure,” Dr. Johnson said. “Even so, they expressed fierce feminism and tried to forge a sense of sisterhood with women who were not like them. They struggled with how to cross those bridges and work together across those differences, but they did try.”
Those considerations can also lead to a better understanding about current social movements and conditions for women.
“Then and now, women have been experiencing some of the same issues, same difficulties, and same realizations about the power of money. In that sense, it can be powerful and inspiring to hear what past women were able to accomplish, while also providing insight into what feminism and intersectionality mean, who is included, and how we can make change,” Dr. Johnson said.
“We can find insight in the past of where we once were, where we are now, and where it is we want to go.”
Dr. Johnson also shared the impact her research has had on her.
“I learned fascinating stories about these women. It made me think about my own beliefs and how I put them into practice,” she said. “It also opened doors to have conversations with my own daughters about what feminism is on a broader level and how they can be active in it.”
Finally, she noted the importance of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) in fostering conversations about women and philanthropy.
“I think that interdisciplinary conversations are crucial and the WPI facilitates these conversations in a way that brings researchers and academics, as well as practitioners and donors, into the same conversations,” Dr. Johnson said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity for me personally to attend the last two symposiums hosted by the WPI and to be in conversation with donors, fundraisers, and other researchers about women and philanthropy.”
And Dr. Johnson’s next steps?
“I’m really excited about the publication of the book and to be in conversation with people about it! I’ll be giving book talks throughout the fall. Then, I have a few loose ideas for my next project and will see where that takes me.”
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.