Institutionalizing Feminism: Why Foundation Funding Matters

With revolution in the air, the 1960s represented a tumultuous period of history in which global elites struggled to reassert control over sprawling and disparate movements for social change. Rising to confidence on the back of countless other struggles for freedom, a new and powerful wave of feminism found itself sweeping across the United States, bringing newfound confidence to millions of women irrespective of colour or class. This rising tide of activism was keenly feared by liberal philanthropic elites like those ensconced in their thrones at the Ford Foundation who sought to domesticate this latest rebellion by constraining its participant’s thirst for sexual equality and emancipation.

Details of the defensive reaction of elite powerbrokers in response to this troublesome feminist contagion are provided in Susan Hartmann’s intriguing book The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment (Yale University Press, 1998). Hartmann however is certainly no critic of liberalism, and rests content in noting that her study helps to explain “how establishment organizations came to apply some of their resources to the women’s movement and to institutionalize feminism within their structures.” (pp-9-10)

Working-class struggles for women’s rights have been a perpetual feature of life under capitalism, and it is appropriate that Hartmann’s first chapter features the important work that was undertaken by the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) from the 1950s onwards “to ensure enforcement of antidiscrimination policy at the workplace.” (p.15) That said, even this inspiring union was less radical than its forerunner, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), which during World War II “stood out as one of the most vigorous unions addressing women’s concerns, thanks to the large number of women workers in the industry and also to the strong left-wing and communist presence in the union.” (p.19) Other labor activists who similarly helped pave the way for the emergent feminist wave that shook America included the likes of Eleanor Flexner and Eve Merriam, authors respectively of the important books, Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States (1959) and After Nora Slammed the Door, American Women in the 1960s: The Unfinished Revolution (1962).

Hartmann documents how well-established liberal institutions like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) like the IUE paid early attention to gender equity in the 1940s; efforts for change which were later bolstered by the National Council of Churches which began “to take moderate feminist stands in the early 1960s”. Surprisingly, the Ford Foundation was a relative latecomer to the feminist cause, perhaps because it was otherwise preoccupied with determined efforts to defang the ascendant, increasingly radical, civil rights movement.

The Ford Foundation did fund “a few women-specific projects in the 1960s,” but only “joined the feminist bandwagon” in 1970. (p.13) Nevertheless, owing to its size and influence, once Ford did start intervening in the women’s movement, it made up for lost time and its efforts put it in “the vanguard of philanthropies both in the money expended on feminist projects [$30 million by 1980] and in the variety of issues addressed.” (p.133) Highlighting the seriousness with which Ford treated the still-developing feminist movement, in 1980 the foundation doubled their funding for women’s programming, “allocating $19.3 million, 10 percent of total spending, to women-specific projects for the years 1980 and 1981.” (p.173)

Ford foundation feminism

During the 1970s Ford’s primary focus was on pushing “mainstream feminist organizations” to the fore of the movement, and lucky groups that were backed by Ford wealth included the likes of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), Ms. Magazine, the Women’s Action Alliance, and the Feminist Press. Ford likewise provided “seed money for Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society which quickly became the premier interdisciplinary journal in women’s studies.” (p.161, p.166) Even with the feminist wave in full flow, foundation largesse was slow in coming at first, and NOW’s Legal Defense and Education Fund only received its first grant from the foundation in summer 1974; while with continued support the Fund obtained a total of $675,000 by 1978. (p.161) In summary “Ford’s greatest contributions were focused in two areas: litigation on behalf of women’s rights and the development of university-based women’s studies.” (p.135) As Hartmann explains:

“In some cases, Ford money alone enabled feminist projects to come into being or to survive, for example, the Women’s Law Fund, which depended upon the foundation for 70 percent of its budget.” (p.135)

The Ford Foundation also contributed towards the establishment of broader networks to help coordinate the broader philanthropic exertions of the liberal establishment, all the better to contain the feminist threat. Hence in 1972, Ford project officers helped establish Women in Foundations, while another organization, Women and Foundations/Corporate Philanthropy was subsequently established in 1977. (p.150)

Ford’s unrelenting focus on boosting the liberal elements of the broad feminist movement meant that “Ford did not… address issues of specific concern to lesbians, nor did it provide any significant support for key priorities of radical feminists, such as violence against women.” (p.171) Furthermore, while prior to the 1970s the foundation did fund some programs for women’s causes, on balance Hartmann concluded, “Ford virtually ignored women in its equal opportunity initiatives throughout the 1960s.” This neglect is noteworthy because during this same period the foundation was busy funding eugenic-inspired programs that were concerned with limiting female reproductive rights. Hence in the decades prior to their delayed decision to begin funding mainstream feminism:

“The foundation dispensed massive support for research, education, and policy development related to birth control, but the desire to limit population growth, not an effort to meet women’s needs, drove those programs.” (p.137)

On this highly pertinent bombshell vis-à-vis the Ford Foundation’s obsession with controlling not helping women, Hartmann has no more to say, other than to provide a footnote that refers us to Thomas Shapiro’s insightful book Population Control Politics: Women, Sterilization, and Reproductive Choice (Temple University Press, 1985). Although one would not know it by Hartmann’s avoidance of this issue, Shapiro’s book provides shocking details of how liberal philanthropists like Ford provided enthusiastic backing for eugenically-inspired population control strategies, regressive policies which were subsequently rolled out worldwide from the 1950s onwards. The so-called ‘voluntary’ sterilization of poor working-class women was a central thrust of Ford’s gargantuan population establishment. The injustice perpetuated by foundation policies — that by the 1970s had unfortunately become official government policy — were summarized by Shapiro in the following way:

“In the 1970s there was a dramatic increase in the use of sterilization as a method of contraception. Female ster­ilization is the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980. This threefold increase was aided by government participation through legislative measures, which established family-planning clinics and assisted in payments for sterilizing procedures. While federally funded family planning clinics began operating in 1965, funds for sterilization first became accessible officially in 1971. Ster­ilization thus became widely available for poor people in a decade that has seen cutbacks in virtually all other public services—and a subsequently reduced standard of living—for the poor. It was also a decade during which abortions became legal, yet were severely re­stricted for the poor.” (p.6)

This institutionalization of such attacks upon society’s most vulnerable women is the logical conclusion of the dead-end capitalist funding priorities of a bankrupt liberal establishment. This much has always been clear to socialist feminists, such as Linda Gordon in her landmark book Women’s Body, Women’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (1976). She demonstrated how despite the “direct attacks on women’s rights” carried out by the Ford-backed population control movement, all too often these attacks on women were subsequently blamed on feminism instead of capitalism.

Thankfully such attempts to divide mass resistance to inequality need not continue, and Gordon concluded her book by observing:

“In all social movements every gain by the exploited has been manipulated, ‘coopted’ by the rulers. Women fought for sexual freedom only to find themselves imprisoned in new forms of sexual exploitation; women fought for jobs only to find themselves exploited more intensely; women fought for education only to find it used to keep them in subordinate places.

“But these manipulations are not part of an unending chain. Their limits are set by the strength and intelligence of the political opposition to them. Indeed, the twists and turns of the rulers of women, attempting to adapt their supremacy to new situations, help to educate their subjects. The lesson to be learned is that reproductive freedom cannot be separated from the totality of women’s freedom.” (p.418)

Michael Barker’s latest book is Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).


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