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Building bridges

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

By Claire Gaudiani

Women’s Exchanges engaged America’s women in both philanthropy and in building the economy.

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 today.

The women who ran the exchanges used the structures of capital markets to develop the human capital they were concerned about.

The founders of the Richmond Exchange, for example, set it up as a joint stock company. They amassed the initial capital by selling shares at $25 per share.

One annual report of the Exchange for Women’s Work in Richmond, Virginia notes, “Surely such a charity will bear scrutiny and criticism even at this day, when people have learned to distinguish so accurately between the benevolence that helps and that which only harms the recipient.”

Now, as we look back from a society that is more open about both class and gender, the Women’s Exchanges may seem merely quaint.

The “decayed gentlewomen” who were forced to feed their children and themselves by crocheting doilies and making jars of relish are as likely to inspire our condescension as our compassion.

But their plight was very real, and the solution was both generous and ingenious.

The leaders of the St. Louis Exchange explicitly expressed their intention that it would become “a bridge between capital and labor, this at a time when labor unrest was a source of much concern to society.”

Women represented a force that would become far more important in the early decades of the 20th century.

Through their access to capital, in the form of the wealth of their husbands and fathers, and through their own need to engage productively and pragmatically in the nation’s business, they had a tremendous impact on what has come to be called the Progressive Era.


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. This column is excerpted from that book.

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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]

Systematic change [05.06.05]

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