Woman-led philanthropy: From organizing bake sales to advocating for woman suffrage

An old woman, a young woman, a girl and a baby sitting in the living room of an 1860s home

Have you ever been to a bake sale? Or perhaps a craft fair or auction for charity? What about a raffle for charity with a beautiful quilt or amazing food as the prize? These sorts of charitable activities are so commonplace we often don't stop to think about their origins or importance. But this is a slice of today's fundraising universe that can lead us back in time to one of philanthropy's most important and long-lasting stories: the importance of women in the history of giving in America.

As I've written in previous posts (which you can find here and here), Americans organized to meet the perceived needs of others—whether physical needs like shelter and food, or more esoteric needs like instruction on moral living and salvation. And women were an important part of this effort.

For much of the 1800s, charity was described as a moral obligation, and women were seen as the unique guardians of morals and virtue. This was a direct result of the cultural construction known as "separate spheres," in which women were told that their realm was the domestic one, away from the harsh and competitive world of men known as "the public sphere." Supposedly tucked away in the domestic spaces of parlors, kitchens, and nurseries, women's greatest contribution to the republic (at least according to the rhetoric of the age) was raising good, moral, sober boys into men who would then continue to guide the nation with a steady hand through such brutal forces as capitalistic competition, political contests, and the vagaries of the market economy.

Five contemporary women gathered around a table outdoors with a number of plastic baggies filled with cookies and other objects on the table in front of them

On the surface, this veneer of separateness and the presumed incompatibility of women with the worlds of business and finance appeared to be intact and largely accepted. But if one looked toward women's work and charities, these assumptions began to flounder. Women were turning their roles as benevolent matrons into a variety of opportunities to fund, promote, and run organizations that were the equal of any business venture or capitalist enterprise. From producing wares for fundraising sales to leading complex institutions, women displayed the financial and organizational skills that many claimed were unique to men.

Lithograph depicting two women, a child and an infant interacting in a sitting room

Which invites us back to consider the humble bake sale, that mainstay of fundraising for schools, churches, libraries, and dozens of other institutions. Particularly in the 1800s, who was likely to do the baking? Women. And from that one supposedly natural domestic activity, a great fundraising strategy was born. Women applied their skills to baking and selling for a cause. Often unwilling to simply turn over their pies and breads, women then saw their efforts through to the end: pricing baked goods to sell, collecting the revenues, and keeping accurate records of the funds raised. From there it was easy to see how women would then strive to maintain further control: establishing bank accounts for their revenue, finding secure investments to build their capital, and managing the withdrawal and spending of those funds.

Then there was the reporting on all of this activity to the donating public, a process through which the annual report was born. Because this is a document still used by nearly every charitable organization today, it is important to recognize that many women were the authors (credited or otherwise) of early annual reports. Woman organizers set up charters, constitutions, boards, and auxiliary committees—all mirroring the daily activities of the business world that supposedly only men could navigate. And baked goods were just one example. Women formed sewing and quilting groups, set up fundraising fairs, and made everything from clothes to bookmarks to decorative arts, all of which helped fund charitable organizations using the instruments of market capitalism.

Twelve black, small, bowl-like pans secured together for baking

A cream-colored quilt with 30 squares outlined in brown. Each quilt square has a different geometric design, with three of the central squares depicting an American flag, a wheeled vehicle, and a wreath

During the Civil War, these skill sets were put to particular and important use. The privately funded United States Sanitary Commission supported Northern medical care during the war. Much of that funding came from "sanitary fairs" organized by women, in which handicrafts, food, and game tickets were sold. Not only did these woman-led and organized fairs generate more than three million dollars—the equivalent of $60 million today—they also helped establish the basic organizing framework and structure that would underpin America's great world's fairs in the second half of the century. Beyond sanitary fairs in the North, women on both sides of the conflict also devoted their sewing skills to making clothing, hospital supplies, blankets, and quilts for soldiers.

A pistol with a white handle in a wooden box with a letter written in cursive secured inside the lid

All of this charitable work provided a socially acceptable outlet for middle- and upper-class women (who generally were not expected to work outside the home), and somewhat shielded women's greater ambitions to be part of the larger world of the public sphere. One example of this sort of tacitly hidden business acumen can be found in one of the century's most famous women. Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind was both a celebrity and a wealthy woman. She managed her fame and the revenue it generated with considerable acuity, a trait that would have been seen as unfeminine had it been widely discussed. Instead, when promoting her 1850-1852 American tour, master showman P. T. Barnum highlighted her charitable giving at each stop on the tour. In this way, Barnum framed Lind’s success (the large dollar amounts of her gifts were almost always sprinkled into the text) in an appropriately feminine way for the day.

Of course, not all women were willing to go along with this sort of cultural blindness to their own successes as fundraisers, organization founders, and business leaders. The skills of starting, running, and expanding entrepreneurial ventures (which charities and benevolent societies ultimately were) gave many women a foundation on which to build support for other causes of importance to them, perhaps the most significant being the suffrage movement. Thus their striving for greater equality and enfranchisement that resonates to this very day had important and significant roots in the history of giving in America.

Daniel Gifford was a contributing historian to the History of Philanthropy Project. He is currently a professor at George Mason University. He has also blogged about Benjamin Franklin's philanthropy and the crossroads of innovation and immigration.

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.