Women's Use of the Nonprofit Sector As an Alternative Power Source

Women have had to find alternative means of exerting influence over societal structure and conventional beliefs because they have not been entitled to equal rights, opportunities or treatment compared to their male counterparts. Yet, the nonprofit sector has proven to be an effective vehicle for women in providing them with a relative seat of power. Largely through the establishment of nonprofit organizations, women have gained valuable experience in the workings of politics, law, governance, finance, and diplomacy


The nonprofit sector, according to Lester Salamon (1999), is "a set of organizations that is privately constituted but serves some public purpose, such as the advancement of health, education, scientific progress, social welfare, or the free expression of ideas."

Women have accessed this sector as an alternative to conventional methods of holding power or influence largely because the patriarchal and/or religious rules on which many of today's societies have been built have inhibited the ability of women and other minority groups to fully participate at all levels. Women have had to find alternative means of exerting influence over societal structure and conventional beliefs because they have not been entitled to equal rights, opportunities or treatment compared to their male counterparts. Wealthy, educated men have controlled most political and economic positions of power in the societies of western civilization. Yet, the nonprofit sector has proven to be an effective vehicle for women in providing them with a relative seat of power. Largely through the establishment of nonprofit organizations, women have gained valuable experience in the workings of politics, law, governance, finance, and diplomacy.

Historic Roots

Volunteerism and charitable acts initiated by women have been taking place throughout history. Prior to the nineteenth century, men controlled most formally organized charitable groups both financially and administratively. Meanwhile women raised funds and provided the care and services to those in need.

During the nineteenth century, many women began to call into question the legitimacy of laws that did not afford equal rights to women as well as men. It was then that many women began to take on leadership roles in nonprofit entities. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two such leaders who organized the first women's rights convention known as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. These women joined with other women of their time to write the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, a document that declared women to be equal to men and openly criticized men for denying such equality to women.

Many of the organizations established by women were specifically intended to provide a hub for political or social reform; and many others were established in order to provide a place where women could be treated equally. For example, female healthcare workers (especially medical doctors) established hospitals and clinics. These institutions were usually established to serve women and children. Though, they also provided a place for female doctors to practice since they were not accepted to practice in mainstream hospitals where men held the leadership positions. The New York Infirmary for Women and Children, established in 1857, is an example of this trend.

Other women formed schools where they ensured women access to higher education. Emma Hart Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary, later known as the Emma Willard School, where hundreds of women were trained as teachers. Mary McLeod Bethune opened a school for black girls in 1904, which later became a coeducational college and is currently known as Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune, during the 1930s and '40s, was appointed to several government posts including serving as President Roosevelt's special advisor on minority affairs.

In the 1950s came a revolutionary change for women's lives - Margaret Sanger established the organization known today as the International Planned Parenthood Federation during this time period. This nonprofit was a culmination of many years' work by Sanger to educate women on issues involving sexually transmitted disease and birth control.

Junior Leagues, YWCAs, and various settlement house organizations sprang up around the country as a result of the leadership of women. All of these organizations set out to provide information, healthcare, education, social opportunities, recreational opportunities or living quarters for those in need.

These types of nonprofits played a pivotal role in the societal reform that has taken place over the last 100 years in America. For example, Settlement Houses, such as Jane Addams' Hull House, became a gathering place of educated women who used the House as a lab for diagnosing the ills of society. These women, through their lobbying, advocacy and charitable works, tackled controversial issues including child labor laws, fair labor standards, city sanitation, health care, and women's suffrage. In 1910, there were 400 settlement houses in the United States, and more than half were managed by women. The settlement house movement alone proved to mobilize tens of thousands of educated women at the turn of the century, which eventually served as a breeding ground for women who were to transition into public office.


The existence of the nonprofit sector in the economic market, and the fact that women have used this sector as a means of accessing leadership roles and seats of power, has heavily impacted the structure of modern society. The impact has been felt strongly by the public sector as women have, only recently, taken their place in government. In contrast to the first two and a half centuries of American history, the late twentieth century saw women elected into nearly 40% of political positions. Yet, no woman had been elected Governor "in her own right" until 1974. As of 2000, eight women currently serve as Governor of various states after having been elected on their own platform. By 1984, women held 34% of civilian management/executive positions and by 1999 that figure had increased to 47%. With more women attending college than men in 1998, this trend to gains in political power will continue to grow.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Women have been key to the formation of a formal nonprofit sector in the United States, one that serves as a model to countries around the world. Through leadership, volunteerism and charitable contributions, women have built portions of the sector that serve the underrepresented, underprivileged and powerless - namely, women themselves, children, and minority groups. Through these roles, women have not only met their missions of social and public policy changes, but have access traditional seats of power and influence.

While women have made tremendous strides in what they set out to accomplish through the leadership of nonprofit institutions, they could not have done it without those who were willing to give their time and money to support a cause. While Margaret Sanger founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation, it was Katherine Dexter McCormick who provided the primary source of funds for the development, testing and marketing of the birth control pill. The development of a birth control pill was not an endeavor in which corporations and government were interested. Therefore, the entire existence of the birth control pill is due to the vision of female leaders and their philanthropic acts. Likewise, Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke in the 1830s, intended to be an institution of higher learning for women at a time when such opportunities were few. Ms. Lyon solicited financial support from a wide base of donors, as well as secured the commitment of time and expertise from male supporters who served as the Board of Trustees for Ms. Lyon's vision.

Today, women are using the nonprofit sector to house programs that teach the up and coming generation about the importance of philanthropy. YWCAs and Junior Leagues are two associations providing leadership programs for girls, and educating classrooms about the importance of giving and volunteering. The Michigan Women's Foundation, through the Young Women for Change's Youth Philanthropy Program, offers a local example of how lessons in philanthropy are being taught to the next generation.

Key Related Ideas

This topic can be further researched and examined using the following search topics:

  • The Abolition Movement
  • Civil Rights
  • The Industrialization of America
  • Social Reform
  • Temperance
  • Women's Rights
  • Women's Suffrage

Important People Related to the Topic

There are countless women who have contributed to the nonprofit sector. A few of those with tremendous impact include:

Jane Addams: In 1889, co-founded Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago intended to help immigrant families. Addams' accomplishments throughout her life have had a tremendous impact on the lives of women, children, the poor, the working class, and urban society. Her work in the field of peace resulted in her becoming the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Elizabeth Blackwell: The first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. She and her sister, a surgeon, opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which was staffed entirely by women and primarily served the poor. This hospital was later expanded to include a medical school for women.

Dorothea Lynde Dix: The single driving force behind reform in the treatment of the mentally ill in America (and a number of other countries). For decades before and after the Civil War, Dix exposed the horrid housing conditions of the mentally ill in prisons and almshouses; she fought for changes in legislation; and she acquired public and private funding to open hospitals dedicated to care of the mentally ill.

Mary Lyon: Founded Mount Holyoke College, formerly known as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in 1837. The purpose of the school was to offer quality higher education for women.

Florence Nightingale: Founded the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital in London in 1860. In addition, she devoted years of leadership and service to others in the field of healthcare.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

Listed below are only a few of the nonprofit organizations that were founded by women and are playing an important role in modern day society.

Association of Junior Leagues International is an organization that trains and supports local level Junior Leagues in which women work for the betterment of their communities. Junior League programs cover the gamut of community need and concern: health, education, child care, youth services, family support services, child welfare, community development, aging, environment, and culture (Association of Junior Leagues International 2002).

National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan to campaign for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. NOW is the largest women's association and advocacy group in the country. It works for equal opportunities for employment, housing, health care, education, and other women's issues.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America is a reproductive health organization dedicated to the rights of individuals to manage their fertility through providing health care services, affecting public policies, providing educational programs, and promoting research (Planned Parenthood Federation of America 2002).

YWCA of the USA "empowers women and girls by offering a wide range of services and programs that enrich and transform their lives" (YWCA of the USA 2002).

Important Related Web Sites

American Association of University Women, at https://www.aauw.org/, offers information about public policy and women's issues, as well as news about the Association. This site also offers information about the AAUW Educational Foundation and the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund.

The Sunshine for Women Web site provides information about women and their accomplishments. It is also a resource for identifying literature by and about women (http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/whm2001/philo.html).

Women's Philanthropy Institute at http://www.women-philanthropy.org/ is a resource for news and information about women's giving.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Aburdene, Patricia and John Naisbitt. Megatrends for Women. New York: Villard Books, 1992: 14-15. ISBN 0-679-40337-X.

American Meteorological Societies Board on Women and Minorities. Facts. Available from http://www.amsbwm.org/facts.html.

Association of Junior Leagues International. AJLI History: A Century of Women Working Together Toward a Common Mission. Available from http://www.ajli.org/?nd=history.

Fugate, Sandy and Dr. Joel J. Orosz. For the Benefit of All, A History of Philanthropy in Michigan. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1997: 140. ISBN 1-891445-00-6.

Jacobs, Eva E. Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics, 4th Edition, 2002,

Employment, Earnings, Prices, Productivity, and Other Labor Data. Lanham, MD: Bernhan Press, 2001: 64-66, 223.

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Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2002. Women's Rights. [cited 17 September 2002]. 

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. About Us. Available from http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about/.

Salamon, Lester M. America's Nonprofit Sector, A Primer, 2nd Edition. New York: The Foundation Center, 1999: 9-10. ISBN 0-87954-801-0.

Stearman, Kay. Women's Rights, Changing Attitudes 1900-2000. Austin: Steck-Vaughn Company, 2000. ISBN 0-8172-5892-2.

Sunshine for Women. Women in Philanthropy 

World Book. Women's History

YWCA of the USA. YWCA History. [cited 21 September 2002]. Available from http://www.ywca.org.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.