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Tags: donors | gates | winfrey

Lessons From Two Humble Women Philanthropists Still Resonate

Lessons From Two Humble Women Philanthropists Still Resonate
(Iryna Borylo/Dreamstime.com)

Patrice Lee Onwuka By Wednesday, 30 March 2022 12:17 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Name a female philanthropist. MacKenzie Scott, Melinda Gates, and Oprah Winfrey probably come to mind. These female mega donors are prominent, but they are by no means pioneers.

As we close out Women’s History Month, it’s important to note that women, including Black women, have founded organizations and strategically supported causes of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all Americans throughout our nation’s history.

By examining the giving approaches of two Black female philanthropists from the early 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker and Oseola McCarty, we can extract lessons about private giving that resonate with donors of all stripes today.

The long history of the American female donor class traces back to our founding.

Self-made women, wives of successful men and women of modest means have all contributed to a constellation of female philanthropists.

They funded scholarships to colleges, raised money for missions, and founded relief organizations to serve the poor. Their wealth and wages went to fight slavery, increase temperance and eventually earn them the right to vote.

Historians suggest charitable work created "parallel power structures" to business and political organizations dominated by men, where women could influence the world around them while gaining confidence, organizational skills, and experience.

Unfortunately, Black women were hardly welcomed  if at all  into the early organizations founded by their white counterparts.

Nevertheless, they too mobilized to help others; they used their sometimes meager resources to found organizations that cared for the poor and orphaned, increased education, and expanded health care for their communities. They also established anti-slavery societies.

These civic organizations featured an interesting socio-economic cross-section of women. Their leaders were skilled workers and wives of professional men as well as domestic workers and laundresses. They might have been like McCarty and Walker.

McCarty was a hard-working washerwoman born in 1908.

A child of rape, she lived with three resilient women who took pride in their self-sufficiency: her grandmother, mother, and aunt. McCarty spent her earliest days playing around the schoolhouse where her aunt taught. In sixth grade, she dropped out of school to be a caregiver for her aunt when she became ill  and never returned.

For decades, McCarty scrubbed clothes and linens by hand on a scrub board and ironed them. Though she toiled from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., she didn’t mind working constantly to accomplish her goals.

Her superlative work ethic and attitude kept customers coming back. "Work is a blessing," she said, adding, "As long as I am living I want to be working at something."

McCarty also studied hairdressing to earn her high school diploma, and when she wasn’t working, she attended church and read the Bible.

McCarty finally retired from her backbreaking work in 1995.

The humble washerwoman had amassed a small fortune of $280,000.

She continued to live frugally, setting aside just enough to pay her expenses and giving most of the rest away. Shockingly, she donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi, located in her hometown of Hattiesburg. McCarty never had children but remarked, "I wanted to share my wealth with the children."

From McCarty’s story, we learn philanthropists need not be particularly wealthy or well-known to make a difference. She achieved renown from her gift, but if the school had not publicized it, her remarkable life probably would have remained unknown.

McCarty did not wait for her passing to make charitable contributions, opting to give most of her money away in her twilight. She may have felt satisfaction in putting her wealth to good use, but whatever the reason, she was one of a growing number of donors choosing to give while alive.

McCarty also chose to give locally rather than sending her dollars to far-flung corners of the world. When asked why, she remarked, "Because it's here; it's close." Research tells us people are more likely to give locally because they perceive that impact will be greater.

Although she never attended college, nor ever stepped onto the University of Southern Mississippi’s campus, McCarty funded scholarships for needy students so that "children don't have to work like I did."

Touched by her generosity, businesses stepped up to match her gift and expand its impact.

Madam C.J. Walker, the self-made hair care mogul, rose to live quite a different life from McCarty  one full of opulence, public attention and prominence. (I’ve written about Walker’s commitment to entrepreneurship and philanthropy in this column before.) However, they shared striking similarities.

Walker started out as a washerwoman too, but her fortunes changed after she developed hair products specifically for Black consumers.

Walker was also a doggedly hard worker. "If I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard," she explained.

Like McCarty, a philosophy of self-help inspired her to devote much of her wealth to supporting educational institutions like then-named Tuskegee Institute and even her own college to teach hairstyling skills. "I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself," she said, "for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race. I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life.  . . .  But I made it!"

Conversely, Walker gave throughout much of her life rather than waiting until retirement.

While little is known about McCarty’s earlier gifts, she gave her biggest charitable contributions in her twilight.

Moreover, Walker’s gifts weren’t limited to where she lived but benefited causes around the country. Her giving interests were varied; she supported the arts and artists as well as academic and vocational training.

In addition, Walker gave financial support to efforts aimed at systemic change, not just self-help. She bestowed large gifts on groups such as the NAACP to lobby for anti-lynching laws, and to various Black public policy and civic organizations across the country.

This month, as we reflect on the achievements of women, we should celebrate how two washerwomen overcame tremendous obstacles and turned the fruits of their labor into opportunities and advancement for those around them.

Patrice Onwuka is a political commentator and director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum. Patrice is also an adjunct senior fellow with the Philanthropy Roundtable and a Tony Blankley Fellow at The Steamboat Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @PatricePinkFile Read Patrice Lee Onwuka's Reports — More Here.

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The long history of the American female donor class traces back to our founding. Self-made women, wives of successful men and women of modest means have all contributed to a constellation of female philanthropists.
donors, gates, winfrey
Wednesday, 30 March 2022 12:17 PM
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