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.

Career

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.

Marriage

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.

Legacy

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.

Conclusion

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. 

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