Mrs Russell Sage: Women's Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America (2006)

Book Review
Publishing information: 
Ruth Crocker (2006). Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, USA. 552pp. Cloth. ISBN: 0-253-34712-2 $49.95

If history holds some important insights for modern day philanthropy then Ruth Crocker's meticulous biography of Mrs Russell Sage is highly informative. It is Crocker's purpose to ensure that we should not underestimate the significance of Olivia Sage, not only for the scale of her charitable investment but also for her political activism. One of the primary aims of this historical biography is to demonstrate that, for Olivia, 'spending was a form of speaking'. The author seeks to challenge what she considers a more conventional view that only through paid employment could women engage in public life at the turn of the twentieth century. She demonstrates that it was only when Olivia was freed from the 'distraction' of earning a living could she concentrate on public causes. And, in turn, Crocker leads her reader to anticipate Olivia's freedom to pursue fully her philanthropic ideals when finally widowed in 1906.

One of the great strengths of Crocker's narrative is the way in which she builds up to the culmination of Olivia's career and to 'the extraordinary charitable works' promised in the later years. The author divides the biography into three distinct chronological sections: first with a description of Olivia's relatively humble beginnings and the emergence of her activism. Then, through her marriage to Russell Sage she begins to realise her ambitions for charitable giving, most notably to the New York Women's Hospital, within the constraints of her husband's 'miserliness'. Finally, in the context of The Progressive Era and at an advanced age, Olivia is widowed and it is at this point that she suggests that at last she was 'beginning to live'.

Crocker's account provides precise detail on the breadth and scale of Olivia's philanthropy. She describes her commitment to Native American reform, for example, in which white Christian women sought to evangelise and domesticate Native Americans, effectively acting as missionaries in their own land. She also describes Olivia's gifts to her own city, region and, with growing nationalism, to her country. With the establishment of the Russell Sage Foundation and its subsequent pioneering social investigation on issues of child poverty and public health, she is credited with a significant role in American welfare prior to the New Deal. And an important feature of her philanthropy was the way in which she endeavoured to make her donations conditional upon the admission of women to the boards of the colleges, schools and hospitals that she funded. Although, as Stanley N Katz has pointed out, there seemed insufficient material upon which to construct a biography, Crocker has performed, in his words, 'a stunning job'. Her meticulous research reveals, for example, the voluminous 'working materials', the reports, pamphlets and correspondence from schools and hospitals, that enabled Olivia to ensure that her giving was well informed.

If there is a disappointment in this story it is that although Olivia's charity could be considered 'extraordinary', her activism does not fulfil its promise. After Russell's death her philanthropy appears constrained and compromised by her advisors and she capitulates to the more powerful claims for charitable investment. For this reason, she gives far more to male than to female colleges despite a lifelong ideological commitment to women's education and suffrage. And this is surely a disappointment that Crocker shares with her readers, suggesting that Olivia is shaped by the prejudices of her class and race. For this reason she uses her personal philanthropy to flatter her family's image and, in particular, to 'sanitise' the tarnished reputation of her deceased husband. Crocker begins her biography by drawing attention to Olivia's financial support for Lilian Todd, the first woman to design an aeroplane. Yet, towards the end she describes the way this pioneer aviator ends her life in poverty, relegated to working in domestic service as her relationship with Olivia falters. This seems to serve as a metaphor for the way Olivia's activism is constrained and her philanthropy falls short of transforming the institutions that she supported. As Crocker points out, philanthropy as an investment necessarily represents choices among competing alternatives, but it also reflects individual idiosyncrasies and prejudices.

At a time when searching questions are being asked about the use of private wealth in the provision of public services this biography raises some important considerations. It is in many ways a fascinating case study on the elusive subject of philanthropic motivation, highlighting a perceived need to give respectability to rapidly acquired wealth. Its continuous theme is the use of philanthropy as a form of activism and a central thesis the idea that 'spending is a form of speaking'. Yet it presents the double-edged sword that when philanthropists are also activists their own beliefs and prejudices may be at work. And it is perhaps a cautionary tale for modern philanthropists demonstrating that the political nature of giving means that they cannot assume that their money will speak for them.

Helen Bowcock is a fundholder with the Surrey Community Foundation and a member of its Grants Policy Committee. She writes here in a personal capacity.


Helen Bowcock

Helen Bowcock

This book review is tagged under:

  • History of philanthropy
  • Women's Philanthropy