Through Gifts She Made a Difference

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (1828-1918), known as Olivia Sage, experienced extreme poverty and immense wealth. And she became “one of the greatest female philanthropists our world has ever known.” Through gifts she made a difference.

By Bain News Service, publisher –
Image available from the United States Library of Congress’s
Prints and Photographs division, Public Domain

Early Life

The daughter of Margaret Pierson and Joseph Slocum, Olivia grew up in Syracuse, New York. Her wealthy and devoutly religious family were members of the First Presbyterian Church. They opposed reform movements like those involving women’s rights and abolition of slavery. 

After the Panic of 1837, her father’s businesses and warehouses failed. He lost his fortune before she reached her teenage years. Sponsored by a wealthy uncle, she attended the prestigious Troy Female Seminary (now Emma Willard School). An academically rigorous school, it quietly advocated for women’s financial independence through education. This influenced Olivia greatly. She considered its headmistress her mentor. She graduated in 1847.


Olivia became a teacher (one of the few acceptable female professions at the time). She experienced firsthand the limited opportunities, underpaid, and overworked difficulties common for the 19th century woman.

The year 1948 sparked Olivia’s interest in women’s rights. It was the year of the “Declaration of Sentiments” in Seneca Falls. In 1852, the Third National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Syracuse while Olivia was living there.

She lived with her parents. In 1857, her father was fatally ill with tuberculosis. They sold their family home. And Olivia and her mother had to move in with relatives.

During the Civil War, Olivia moved to Philadelphia where she worked as a governess for wealthy families.


Olivia turned down a few marriage proposals “because she felt they were not to her advantage and two restrictive.”

 At the age of 41, she married Russell Sage. Sage was a widower, financier, and railroad baron. He was 12 years older than she. One of the richest men in America, he was also a miser. They had no children.

He died in 1906 and left his entire fortune to Olivia without restriction.  Most women of that time were not given that freedom.

 His estate was worth almost $75,000,000 (the equivalent of about $1.8 billion in today’s dollars).

Early Philanthropy

National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Common

Through gifts, she made a difference. She volunteered tirelessly even while a single working woman and always gave a portion of her small teacher’s salary to charity.

She volunteered at a military hospital during the Civil War. 

During her marriage to Slocum, she supported a variety of causes from social work to the human treatment of animals. She tried to get her husband to donate to her charities. Only rarely did she get more than token donation from him.

Aggressive Philanthropy

Inside Risley Hall, Cornell University. Portrait of Margaret Slocum Sage on the wall.
photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0

After her husband died in 1906, Olivia “began one of the most aggressive philanthropic binges in American history.”

She conducted serious investigations of potential beneficiaries. And she only gave to those who to helped themselves.

Olivia supported education. She gave many gifts to universities and colleges, founded a women’s college, and supported the women’s suffrage movement. And she donated Constitution Island to the federal government as an addition to West Point. 

She became a patron of E. Lilian Todd, the first woman in the world to design airplanes. 

A woman of her time, some of Olivia’s gifts revealed a morally elite attitude. Gifts for women’s education required that women abstain from dancing, drinking, smoking, and boys. She was a benefactor of the Carlisle School. It was a school determined to make Native Americans acceptable to mainstream white American Christians.

By the time she died, Olivia gave away over $45,000,000.


Olivia died November 4, 1918, at the age of 90. Her estate was worth close to $50,000,000. Almost all of it went to charities. Among her gifts, two showed she had changed. She bequeathed generous donations to the African American institutions—Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes.

She chose to be buried in Syracuse, next to her parents.


Olivia Sage was a born philanthropist and gave on a grand scale. She was a mix of conservative and female discontent, and she was a strong woman. She didn’t live long enough to see women vote. And many believe her donations did little because she gifted so many organizations and institutions. Did she cause a major change? Not on a national scale. But through gifts she made a difference. 

Help Me Help Prevent Sexual Assault

It’s my birthday! It is appropriate that today I share information about the two organizations that are most important to me. One is a national organization that works on a large scale. The other is a local organization that gave me a stage upon which I could speak my truth at a time when that truth was raw and difficult. These organizations provide much-needed services to survivors of sexual assault. Will you help me help prevent sexual assault?

Every 98 seconds,

another person experiences sexual assault.

Survivors of sexual assault are of all genders, races, religious affiliations, nationalities, and ages. Sexual violence includes child sexual abuse, rape, intimate partner sexual violence, and other crimes.

Every 8 minutes a child is sexually assaulted in the U.S.

93 percent know their abuser.


These statistics are from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). It is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S. According to their website They have helped more than 2.7 million people since 1994. Think about that. They have helped more than 112,000 people per year for 24 years!

RAINN operates a phone line and an online chat 24/7 for anyone who needs help because of sexual violence. The organization partners with 1000 local sexual assault service providers. They carry out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. 95 cents of every dollar given goes directly to their programs and services. See this page to know how your donation helps. 

They offer many ways to give. Please visit their donation page here.

RAINN wasn’t around when I struggled to deal with my nightmares and panic attacks. I don’t care whether you call what I experienced repressed memories, false memories, or dissociative amnesia. (Read a balanced discussion of how memories of trauma can work. ). I don’t worry anymore about the details of who did what. I know something did happen when I was very young. That something was sexual, traumatic, and life-changing.


My struggle sent me to therapists and they connected me with a local organization, MOCSA  (Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault). At the time I used MOCSA briefly and then ignored them. But, being able to sit on the MOCSA supported stage and tell my story made a huge impact on me. It was the beginning of me getting my life back together.

If you’re a survivor of sexual assault I want you to know that recovery is possible. Strength afterward is possible. Alone it’s nearly impossible. With the help of services from organizations like MOCSA or RAINN, it’s hard and sometimes feels downright impossible. You can do it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be “normal” whatever that is, but you can get to the other side. The other side is where you can enjoy the beauty, the peace, and the joy in your life. It’s there, waiting for you.

The RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline is free, confidential, and available 24/7.

Call 800-656-4673

I want to repay MOCSA by paying forward for someone else. Won’t you help me help prevent sexual assault? Your donation will also help a survivor recover. You can donate here or on Facebook. If you’d rather not donate to my local organization, feel free to donate to RAINN. Either way, your donation helps prevent or helps someone recover from sexual assault. Anyone who comments here with a copy or screen shot of their receipt for their donation (black out the amount–it’s not how much you give–it’s that you gave something) between now and December 31, 2018 will receive a free copy of the ebook version of My Soul to Keep in appreciation of your time and support.