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Spanning the 1960s through the 1980s, this article tracks the relationships between one of the leading national Left-liberal philanthropies in the post–WWII era United States—the Field Foundation—and a variety of women’s and feminist issues and organizations. Field was one of the largest and most iconoclastic philanthropies of its time. Founded during the early nineteen-forties and steeped in Popular Front and New Deal social democratic impulses, it provided generous, sustained support to grassroots movements for civil rights and antipoverty years—often decades—before other philanthropies dared. This article explores how such an organization, primarily concerned with poverty and civil rights, was drawn into supporting feminist organizations in the period from the sixties through the eighties, and what that support meant for feminism and Left liberalism.
Field’s support for feminist organizations was shaped by its own agenda, which was dominated by the African American civil rights struggle. The foundation began by providing generous funding to programs for poor and nonwhite women, and then moved on to support African American women’s groups directly. Its largesse aided the development of political, economic, and organizing capacity among African American women. Their organizations consisted of both small, local community organizations like the Gee’s Bend, Alabama, Quilting Collective, and large, grassroots national membership organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization. Though different in size and scope, these organizations and the many others Field supported often developed proto-feminist or feminist politics, integrating feminist analysis with lived experiences of poverty, discrimination, lack of jobs and services, and disrespect. In fostering the feminisms of nonwhite, non-middleclass groups, this article argues, the Field Foundation influenced the fate of second-wave feminism. The foundation’s support helped women who produced feminisms that were more conscious of poverty and more antiracist than mainstream, middle-class feminisms. When, by the early eighties, mainstream, white feminist organizations heeded the call of African American and poor women, and placed antipoverty activism high on their agendas, the Field Foundation funded them, too.
The fertile terrain shared by Left liberalism and some feminists in the late twentieth century provides a new vantage point from which to view the period. Dominant narratives of post-1960s liberalism portray it as listless and fractious, its decline hastened by internal divisions over civil rights, antipoverty programs, and women’s rights. But this article suggests an opposite history: a variety of energetic organizations flourished in this period. In addition, far from being divided by issues of race and gender, both the Field Foundation and African American women’s organizations, and over time some mainstream national feminist organizations, were united by their work on these issues. Such interrelated civil rights, antipoverty, and women’s rights work suggests that the period from the 1960s through the 1980s ought to be seen as a vibrant and forceful moment in the history of Left liberalism in the United States.