Contributing Women: Historic Benchmarks

National Womens History Project

Charity and “good works” have been part of American identity since before our country’s founding. To commemorate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 9, we take a look at some women whose charity enabled them to contribute to—and work for—causes they strongly believed in.

Esther De Berdt Reed
Esther Reed, painting by Charles Wilson Peale

In 1780, Esther Reed, the wife of the newly appointed President (Governor) of Pennsylvania, learned about the sagging spirits of George Washington’s soldiers. She organized the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, recruiting women to go door-to-door in pairs to collect from every woman in town. The money was used to purchase fabric for soldiers’ shirts, each of which included the embroidered name of the woman who had sewn it.

Following Reed’s premature death, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter Sarah Bache was influenced by Reed’s work to carry on the women’s support for the soldiers. In Daughters of the Declaration, authors Claire Gaudiani and David Graham Burnett wrote that an estimated $300,000 was raised nationally by their campaign, “equal to tens of millions of dollars today.”

Catherine (Katy) Ferguson became a free black woman at age eighteen and was perhaps one of America’s first social entrepreneurs, according to Gaudiani and Burnett. In 1780, after losing her husband and children to influenza, she decided to “mobilize her obvious gifts” to help the many orphans and abandoned children following the war. Though uneducated, Ferguson started a Sunday school (the only day the children were available) to teach poor black and white students to read, and had to fundraise to keep the school going.

Through women’s creative efforts, relief societies, giving circles, women’s labor exchanges, immigrant settlement houses, free schools, and clinics, have all become inextricably woven into the American fabric of today’s culture of giving.

Not only have women impacted America in creating societies to assist those in need, they have now helped create impact investments where they can grow assets while supporting women and socially responsible companies: Root Capital’s Women in Agriculture Initiative, Pax World’s Global Women’s Equality mutual fund, Calvert Foundation’s Women Investing in Women (WIN-WIN) promissory notes—all have social screening in place to advance women.

In their 2010 book, Women and Philanthropy, authors Sondra Shaw-Hardy and Martha A. Taylor wrote, “Men and women have different feelings and beliefs about money. Many men tend to view increasing their wealth as an end in itself, whereas women often perceive their money in a broader context—as a means to be independent, care for children, or make philanthropic gifts.”

As financial advisors, we see the benefits of charitable gifts and philanthropic planning. We help many of our clients select the appropriate vehicles through which to give. The benefits are not just tax-related but are impactful in making the world a better place and teaching future generations about how to make a difference.

Women’s philanthropy today continues a long tradition of contributing with a social conscience, and links to both the past and the future. Please join us in celebrating women and all they have achieved.