“Mrs. Russell Sage: Women’s Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America”
By Ruth Crocker
Review by Jud Fisher
Ruth Crocker’s biography about Olivia Sage is an examination of the subject’s life, a woman’s place in the world around the start of the twentieth century, charity and philanthropy. The book reviews Sage’s life stages and interests while allowing a look at the complex recipes that form her charitable and philanthropic endeavors. Crocker depicts a woman whose philanthropy carries on today in the form of the Russell Sage Foundation, but whose private charity is questioned for its efficacy. Sage’s life as a reformist, suffragist, teacher, progressive and wife of one of the world’s richest men are all part of the picture Mrs. Russell Sage paints for the reader.
The book begins with introducing some of the players in Sage’s life. Her husband, Russell Sage, is exhibited as the “robber baron” who married his second wife Olivia after his first wife passed away. Mrs. Sage is shown to have been prone to “self-representation” when Crocker explains that Olivia had commissioned a family history that was both “misleading and indispensable”. This sets the stage for Crocker’s portrayal of Sage as a self-promoter, something not uncommon in people of wealth, but telling in its statement of her humanity.
Crocker then retreats to the early years and reconstructs Olivia’s life as a youth and young adult. She was born September 8, 1848, and was raised primarily by her mother due to her father’s absence for work. She was brought up with strict class distinctions and Crocker informs us that snobbery was indoctrinated in Olivia early and often. Syracuse, New York, was where she resided and, until she was nine, her family shared in the region’s prosperity. When hard times struck Syracuse, it swept Olivia’s father into a spiral of loss and bad business deals from which he would never recover.
Sage grew up in this changed “world in which … a society of busy benevolent wives and matrons whose public work… ‘implicitly challenged the tenets of domesticity and submission’ of the ideology of true womanhood”. She then went on to a school run by Emma Willard, a “powerfully feminine” force who helped shape Sage’s philosophies more than anyone else in her life.
Crocker goes on to account several interesting parts of Olivia’s life. The reader is informed that long before Russell and Olivia are married, when Olivia was still relatively young, there was an ironical moment when Joseph Slocum, Olivia’s father, was swindled by Russell in a business deal. Prior to marrying Russell, we learn that Olivia went through several jobs as a teacher and governess and never had much money. She and Russell finally married on November 24, 1869, the event of which prompts the author Crocker to state: “Did she marry him for money? For that, and other reasons… she liked to live well – felt entitled even”.
As their marriage progressed, Russell built an impressive array of businesses that employed numbers rivaling those of the entire federal government. Olivia, however, had traded in her independent, low-paid life for one of a cooped up society wife with little money of her “penny pinching” husband’s to spend. She entered the social and philanthropic elite circles not as much by giving money, but more by volunteering on boards and other avenues. She struggled to get her husband to give money, even to the causes she was dedicated to, and Crocker suggests that Olivia was humiliated by the paltry sums her husband would rarely let go of in the name of charity.
This period also saw Olivia speak out on public policy in favor of women’s advancement and begin to show her reformist side. Olivia gave interviews, one of which dealt with why women should vote and she became at least a high profile mouthpiece for suffrage, if not a great funder of the movement.
Russell Sage died in 1906 and left Olivia around $75 million ($1.5 billion in 2004 currency). She was then 78 years old and turned to attorneys and family as her inner circle for charity and philanthropic engagement. She was noted as saying she was “just beginning to live” during one of her many planning meetings. Olivia had three types of vehicles for distributing gifts: charitable giving to individuals, giving through the foundation (Russell Sage Foundation; Was this named after him as a barrier from the multitude of monetary requests for Olivia? To rectify Mr. Sage’s miserliness?), and philanthropy to institutions.
The main person who assisted Olivia with her giving was an attorney named Robert Week de Forest. The main family member who “protected” and helped her was her brother Joseph Jermain Slocum. De Forest was seen by outsiders as a callous aloof aristocrat, while her brother was viewed as an over protective sibling who also “lacked judgment and even good sense”. De Forest’s shortcomings were that he often led Sage to donate to his pet programs, but he did help set the stage for a more systemic approach to philanthropy for the widow. J.J. Slocum simply seemed to be a bully who overstepped his position with regard to his sister’s giving, but he also knew that Olivia was much better at apportioning the money and probably did not influence the Sage fortune and giving as much as did de Forest.
Olivia Sage’s legacy is that of a woman who more than dabbled in women’s movements of her time, greatly adding to the changing attitudes of the “weaker” sex as the early part of the twentieth century saw women finally get the right to vote. Her philanthropy via the Russell Sage Foundation was her enduring mark as it addressed a more systemic policy thanks in no small part to de Forest. Her private philanthropy and charitable giving is questioned for its haphazard method and Crocker wonders if it made any great strides as it was often helter-skelter due to influence by friends and family trying to leverage Sage money for their own causes. Also, Olivia was possibly unsure of some of her giving because of changing allegiances and philosophies in the women’s movement as well as the softening of her well loved religious strictness in the higher education institutions she extensively supported.
Crocker basically asks if Mrs. Sage’s philanthropy mattered, and I believe it did. Sage was seen as self-aggrandizing often, but her several passions and life experiences, capped with control of her husband’s fortune, allowed her to be thrust into one of the earliest mega-giving roles for a woman. The mix of those events and experiences that helped her develop the Russell Sage Foundation has been shown to be very lasting and helpful in social betterment. Sagehelps today’s philanthropists (and its critics) examine the reasons behind Olivia’s giving and then try and expound on the “good” and avoid the “bad” (these are relative terms!) philanthropy when making decisions on where funding will be directed.