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  • Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women's Movement, 1870–1967 by Joan Marie Johnson
  • Katarina Keane
Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women's Movement, 1870–1967. By Joan Marie Johnson. Gender and American Culture. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 303. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3469-2.)

Drawing on organizational records, personal papers, and correspondence, Joan Marie Johnson reconstructs the story of how wealthy women used their assets to advance women's rights. Histories of the women's movement, she argues, have focused too heavily on organizational leadership and ideological [End Page 202] divides but have neglected the significance of finances. Johnson contends that the financial contributions of wealthy women helped shift the movement out of the end-of-the-nineteenth-century doldrums and onto a winning path. Johnson argues that the donations provided by these women—all white, most single or widowed, nearly all northern and native-born—were key to women gaining expanded access to higher education, the right to vote, and birth control. While not discounting the activism and small donations of working- and middle-class women, she finds that, on the whole, it was the wealthy women who made the difference.

This philanthropy had dual ends. First, it was targeted at improving the social status and economic condition of all women. In so doing, the monied women "wanted to de-emphasize their elitism and instead create sisterhood" (p. 10). Funds from wealthy women had purposes both practical (covering the costs of office rents, travel for organizers, publications, mailings, and legal fees) and strategic (garnering legitimization and publicity when featured in newspaper society pages).

At the same time, philanthropy empowered the donors themselves when most lacked the right to vote and few had access to the professions or to higher education. Their money gave them a voice in institutions led by men (such as medical schools) as well as in women's organizations. Nearly always, the philanthropists made donations with strings attached. The "coercive power of philanthropy" could sometimes mean that a medical school received a donation only if it agreed to admit female students, but it also meant that working-class women had to concede to agendas and strategies set by wealthy donors (p. 1). Johnson is careful to highlight these moments of tension between women. Donors had strong opinions about who should lead organizations and how their money should be allocated. Naturally, the rank-and-file organizers sometimes chafed against the disproportionate power wielded by wealthy women.

This dynamic suggests the key tension in the women' s movement, one that Johnson highlights at several points. Fighting for the rights of women did not inherently imply a fight across lines of class and race. While united in their support for women' s equality, the philanthropists were reluctant to challenge racial and class hierarchies. Again and again, they confronted a key question: did a sisterhood unite women? This question, as Johnson notes, was as important one hundred years ago as it remains today. Unfortunately, Johnson demonstrates, the racism and classism in the women's movement was a feature, not a bug. All too often, her "monied women" worked on behalf of (rather than alongside) working-class women and rarely challenged racial divides. As Johnson notes, grappling with this dynamic is critical—not only to understanding the past but also to building contemporary feminist movements.

With this book Johnson belongs to a wave of scholars writing the wealthy and the powerful back into the narrative of U.S. history after several decades of focusing on the history of the working class. Historians such as Sven Beckert, Steve Fraser, and Gary Gerstle have recently called for renewed inquiry into the role of elites in American history; Johnson' s book makes the important point that wealthy female philanthropists should also be part of the story. Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women's Movement, [End Page 203] 1870–1967 offers a worthy contribution not just to women's history but also to the history of capitalism.

Katarina Keane
University of Maryland
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Additional Information

ISSN
2325-6893
Print ISSN
0022-4642
Pages
pp. 202-204
Launched on MUSE
2019-02-09
Open Access
No
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