Women’s Exchanges paved way for social change.

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

By Claire Gaudiani

Women’s Exchanges addressed, both directly and indirectly, the problem of the social transition itself.

No nation can tolerate for long a large group of unemployable people who nonetheless drain the country’s resources, which is what the concept of Victorian womanhood had created.

That pool of labor had to be tapped if the U.S. economy was to thrive, and it was.

From 1870 to 1920, the female work force grew from less than two million to almost nine million.

And women made up a growing proportion of the work force, going from 13 to 21 percent.

But the transition was incredibly rocky.

First, working class and poor women were increasingly forced to go away from their families and into factories and mills.

Because they worked, they did not qualify for the protections extended to the “pure woman” who was the Victorian idea.

There was no precedent set for their treatment, and so they were appallingly exploited, sexually and otherwise.

Second, middle-class women and upper-class women were becoming more and more educated — and therefore more potentially valuable to the economy — and they were barred from working.

Clearly, social forces were seriously interfering with the ability of the market economy to function smoothly.

The Women’s Exchanges became part of the solution to both of these problems.

Because the exchanges put women of different economic levels in close working contact, they eventually went beyond their original agenda to become champions of the rights of working women.

They also became training grounds for the educated woman’s entry into the vocations that would support them, helping them to hone skills in organization and finance.

These affluent women did not operate from a base of social and economic naivete. They were purposeful in their attempts to mitigate the effects of capitalism as a way of preserving the essential system.

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.

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]

Building bridges [06.20.05]

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