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Systematic change

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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Philanthropy has worked to address specific economic transitions in American society.

In a brilliant book, The Business of Charity: The Women’s Exchange Movement,1832-1900, Karen Waters Sander chronicles one such transition.

In the 19th century, as the U.S. moved from a primarily agricultural to a largely manufacturing, industrial or mercantile economy, this transition threw a significant percentage of the female population into an economic no man’s land.

This smaller urban home model had no room for extra hands, male or female, as did the larger farmhouse model. Unmarried women or widows with children were most problematic to support.

In cases of abandonment by a spouse or his death, a woman faced devastating economic and social consequences.

Working outside the home meant an immediate and devastating loss of class. Any job, other than teacher or perhaps domestic companion, carried with it a stigma that was almost equivalent to that of prostitution.

No woman who worked in a factory or shop could expect that she would ever be asked to marry a respectable man. And if she were married, the disgrace to her husband would almost certainly cause him to lose his own position.

After the Civil War, the situation became even worse, as tens of thousands of women lost their husbands and were left destitute, often with children to care for.

Here was a large pool of workers whose labor could not be utilized for the good of the economy. Worse, they and their children could only be a burden

Only other women, who had a clear understanding of the problem and the discretion to deal with the social constraints, could address it.

Fortunately, they did. Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, affluent women who were concerned about the condition of women in society in general developed women’s exchanges.

It was an idea the average male reformer would not have taken seriously for an instant, but it was highly effective.

Very simply, a group of wealthy women in Philadelphia opened a shop in 1832, at which handmade goods were sold on consignment.

The organizers provided all or part of the elegant materials to their female friends languishing in the newly defined social category of “decayed gentlewomen.”

These women used the silks, yarns, ribbons and foodstuffs to produce the handmade goods. The proceeds went to those who made them, upper- and middle-class women without husbands.

The crucial part of the operation is that the makers of the goods remained anonymous. They could work at home to support themselves and their children, and no one would know it.

Almost two decades later, the New Brunswick Exchange opened. After the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, exchanges opened in cities and towns around the country, eventually forming into the National Federation of Women’s Exchanges, an organization that still exists.

Women’s exchanges connected great strides in philanthropy to economic strides in 19th century America.

We all need to think about similar problems the economy is producing today that could be addressed by such systematic changes through philanthropic initiatives.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism. 

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Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

Helping hands [9.20.04]

Change agent [10.11.04]

Retailing generosity [10.25.04]

Prescription for change [11.22.04]

Whitewashing history [12.06.04]

Breakthrough philanthropy [12.20.04]

Critical thinking [01.03.05]

Tsunami lessons [01.17.05]

Making money [02.01.05]

Pension payoff [02.14.05]

Beyond the self [02.28.05]

Enlightened self-interest [03.14.05]

Taking chances [03.28.05]

Urban revolutionary [04.12.05]

Imaginative generosity [04.25.05]

Donor inspiration [05.09.05]

Paying forward [05.23.05]

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