When eighty-nine-year-old multimillionaire financier Russell Sage died in 1906, his physician commented, "In leaving his fortune to Mrs. Sage, Mr. Sage has left it to charity" (Troy Record July 28, 1906, 5). Sure enough, over the next eleven years, his widow, Margaret Olivia Sage, spent over $45 million in charitable donations, establishing herself as the greatest female philanthropist of her time.
Although in her old age Sage was America's wealthiest woman, her early life had been haunted by her family's financial problems and by the struggle to support herself. Her Quaker father, Joseph Slocum, prospered in the boom times of canal building in upstate New York, but when the panic of 1837 struck the region, his stores, warehouses, and other businesses began to fail. In 1841, when his daughter Olivia (her preferred name) Slocum was thirteen, he sold 500 acres of land to pay his debts. For the next twenty-five years, Joseph Slocum traveled continuously, seeking sponsors for his improved agricultural machinery and other inventions as far as Russia, but his projects generally failed and he was never able to provide his family with adequate support, let alone financial security.
Despite these problems, and encouraged by her ambitious and protective mother (Margaret Pierson Slocum), Olivia Slocum managed to obtain an education as good as then available for girls. After attending private schools in Syracuse, she enrolled at Troy Female Seminary, borrowing the tuition money from a wealthy uncle. At the seminary, she studied an impressive range of subjects and came under the influence of the charismatic educator Emma Willard, who would remain her lifelong model and mentor.
Willard's Troy Female Seminary produced a generation of young women who thought of themselves as cultural and moral leaders. Many women went on to found their own schools on Troy Female Seminary principles, forming an "ever-widening circle" of feminist evangelical reformers whose impact on antebellum culture and society has yet to be fully appreciated (Crocker 1996, 254). This self-aggrandizing mission appealed to Olivia Slocum, who drew comfort from the thought that, despite present money problems, her family had a distinguished New England past, and perhaps some special destiny for the future. As early as 1847, she anticipated her role as a philanthropist when she praised "our distinguished inhabitants who spend their wealth in deeds of charity" in her graduation speech (Patton 1941, 12).
For the next twenty years, Olivia Slocum supported herself as a teacher in Syracuse and Philadelphia while her father's financial situation went from bad to worse. Joseph Slocum's business ventures involved him in deals with some men smarter or less scrupulous than himself, including her future husband, Russell Sage. Financially ruined and gravely ill with tuberculosis, Joseph Slocum put the family home up for sale in 1857, forcing Olivia and her mother to move in with relatives.
During the Civil War, Olivia Slocum worked as a governess in Philadelphia, also volunteering her services in a hospital for the wounded. Her unremitting struggle to survive on a teacher's salary made her ready to accept a proposal from Russell Sage, an ex-congressman and multimillionaire twelve years her senior, who had recently lost his first wife to cancer. They married in 1869, when she was forty-one years old. Marriage transformed her fortunes and gave her the status of a wealthy New York matron, but it also connected her to a tireless workaholic whose frugal and eccentric lifestyle and uncanny skills on Wall Street as the business partner of hated railroad mogul Jay Gould, attracted both the ridicule and awe of the public.
Now Mrs. Russell Sage, she forged a public persona as a philanthropist that rivaled her husband's public persona as financier and miser. She took up public work, becoming what one journalist called one of that "New York type of well-to-do committee-working church women" (Gleason 1906, 81814). Olivia Sage donated hours of work to voluntary organizations such as the New-York Woman's Hospital, the first hospital specializing in the diseases of women, where she served in many capacities, including treasurer and board member. In 1891, she was among the founders of the Emma Willard Association, an alumnae organization for Troy Female Seminary, and she supervised the collection of biographical data for Emma Willard and Her Pupils, which contains information on the lives of 3,500 of the more than 12,000 women who attended Troy from 1822 to 1872. She also paid for its publication and distribution.
Voluntary activity by women, many historians believe, helped to propel the suffrage and feminist campaigns, for it involved fund-raising, studying public issues, holding meetings, and planning the "investment" of benevolent resources (money and time). Moreover, these voluntary associations provided middle- and upper-class women with opportunities to work and possess a public voice at a time when such activities, outside of benevolent work, were viewed as unladylike. Since she had recently experienced poverty and struggle, Sage used her public voice to call for women's economic emancipation and for female suffrage. She rejected the identity of the "lady of leisure," and embraced the idea of work and moral earnestness. Indeed, she found a voice as an advocate of moral reform and advancement for women, causes she considered identical. Her first full-scale interview with a reporter, published as "The Opportunities and Responsibilities of Leisured Women," provides a summary of her views about how women's influence would reform society and clean up politics. "Now the woman of to-day has demonstrated the quality of her talent, courage, and endurance," she said in 1905, "there is no excuse for her not working" (Sage 1905, 714).
In 1906, Olivia Sage inherited virtually all her husband's fortune of $75 million, and her experience as a fund-raiser and treasurer in voluntary associations during her thirty-seven-year marriage gave her confidence in handling money. Now, she launched into an astonishing array of philanthropy, spending about $35 million in her eighties, about $1.5 billion in today's money.
Her first major donation came only six weeks after Russell Sage's death, when she gave New York University about $294,000 for women's education. Unfortunately, the gift deed was drafted poorly, and the university never applied the money as she specified. Often, as in this case, her philanthropy was diverted from the uses she intended. In some cases, the elderly widow was outmaneuvered and outwitted by fund-raisers, so that she spent millions of dollars on their favorite schemes, leaving her own plans unfulfilled. She supported women's mission auxiliary associations, but gave far more to the male-dominated American Bible Society than to its female auxiliary. Additionally, she gave over $1 million to the Charity Organization Society (COS), presided over by her own lawyer, Robert W. de Forest. Isolated by deafness and suffering the physical limitations of old age, she was easily hoodwinked. In the end, her influence was even less than it might have been because she also generously funded thousands of worthy institutions and causes with modest amounts of money, rather than making one or two really major contributions.
Her great gifts often had multiple meanings. When she purchased Constitution Island off West Point and gave it to the nation in 1908, her action had, for example, at least four motives. First, it was an act of patriotism commemorating a Revolutionary War campaign; second, it saved the island home of Susan and Anna Warner, best-selling domestic novelists whose The Wide, Wide World (1850) was among her favorites; third, it thwarted plans of commercial development for the site, a prospect she deplored. Finally, the area's natural beauty had sentimental ties with her younger days. No single explanation would have sufficed for this gift.
Little of Sage's money went directly to poor people. Her donation of $10,000 a year for this purpose was administered through the New York Charity Organization Society. Her largest and most signficant donation was a gift of $10 million to set up a Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment in April 1907. The Sage Foundation was to maintain a fund and apply the income to "the improvement of the social and living conditions in the United States of America ... to use any means for that end which from time to time shall seem expedient ... including research, publication, education, the establishment and maintenance of charitable or benevolent activities, agencies and institutions (Hammack 1994, 3). For reasons that are still unclear, she insisted that the foundation should bear only her husband's name, altering early planning documents by scratching out "Margaret Olivia" and inserting "Russell." If she hid behind her husband's name, Sage nevertheless tried to harness her husband's money to her own purposes. At the first meeting of the board of trustees, she was overheard to declare, "I am nearly eighty years old and I feel as though I have just begun to live!" (de Forest 1918, 151). Thus, the elderly widow expressed her delight in being able to put her money to work for the public good.
Although it is impossible to say how much credit for the foundation should be given to Sage and how much to her advisor Robert W. de Forest, the Russell Sage Foundation clearly made a significant contribution to the development of the social sciences in America. In recruiting trustees and experts, the foundation gathered up the most important strands of postbellum reform from the overlapping charitable, academic, and evangelical elites. Russell Sage Foundation grants supported research and generated public policy in urban planning, public health, social work and social provision, and consumer economics. The most remarkable demonstration of this uniting of social science and reform was the foundation-funded Pittsburgh Survey, which employed dozens of social scientists to study an entire industrial region and improve the lives of its inhabitants. The result was the first empirically based study of urban problems, which drew attention to the need for more schools, better housing, and safer, healthier neighborhoods. The Russell Sage Foundation also played a crucial role in helping establish social work as a profession. It supported the publication of professional social-work journals, especially Charities and the Commons (renamed The Survey in 1909), and established training programs for "social workers" (then a new term), with Schools of Philanthropy (Social Work) in Boston, St. Louis, New York, and Chicago.
In addition to the foundation, Olivia Sage gave millions of dollars to educational institutions, including universities, colleges, and schools. She sometimes specified that her giving should be directed to help women, and donated dormitories and scholarships for women. She gave generously to women's colleges, including Wellesley, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr, but she donated far more over her lifetime to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, universities that would continue to exclude women well into the twentieth century. Her most characteristic donation came in 1916, when she gave $1 million to endow a new women's college in Troy, New York, the Russell Sage College of Practical Arts, with the goal of producing a generation of women that would enter the professions and business and achieve the economic and political participation that had always eluded its founder.
The terms of her will were extraordinarily generous. The legacy was divided into fifty-two equal parts. Of educational institutions named in the will, nineteen received one part, or about $800,000 each. Favorite institutions received huge legacies: the Emma Willard School, the Woman's Hospital, the Children's Aid Society, the Charity Organization Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and Syracuse University received $1.6 million each. The will also provided large donations to churches, missions, and other religious causes. Some of these gifts reaffirmed sentimental and intellectual ties to the "woman's domain" of religious auxiliary societies. The Woman's Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church and New York City Mission and Tract Society (Woman's Board), for example, each got a whopping $1.6 million.
Olivia Sage practiced philanthropy in many ways. As a volunteer, a reformer, an investor, a patron, and a visionary, she was able to have a major impact on American society in the twentieth century. Using her husband's name, "Mrs. Russell Sage," while giving to many women's organizations, she presents a fascinating puzzle to historians for the way she went about the work of giving away the fortune her husband had spent his whole life to amass.
The main collections of Olivia Sage's papers are at the Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY) and at the Emma Willard School (Troy, NY). Other scattered papers can be found at the Butler Library, Columbia University (New York City); the New York State Library (Albany, NY); New York University Archives (New York City); the New York Public Library (New York City); Rutgers University Archives (New Brunswick, NJ); U.S. Military Academy Archives (West Point, NY); and elsewhere.