The Founding Mothers of the Social Enterprise Revolution

The other day I was bopping along, doing my content-marketing-specialist thing when a headline attacked me. It demanded to know “Can Women Lead The Social Enterprise Revolution?” I thought the question was strange but continued reading.

The article described a study that found women are almost twice as likely to reach the top ranks in social enterprises as in mainstream businesses and noted that while “Women always worked in social occupations (teachers, nurses, mothers)…philanthropy has always been the domain of wealthy men.”

Can women lead the social enterprise revolution? I say of course we can, and I’m not alone in my belief. In Daughters of the Declaration: How Women Social Entrepreneurs Built the American Dream, Claire Gaudiani argues that America’s women invented social entrepreneurship to realize the philosophical implications of the Declaration of Independence.

Cultural psychologist Alana Conner suggests that it was actually women’s position outside dominant institutions that helped them see “the damage that laissez-faire capitalism, slavery, disenfranchisement, [and] unregulated labor practices” wrought.

Regardless of their reasons, there’s no denying that history is full of females who pioneered the act of doing good. Take a short walk with me through U.S. history and today’s social enterprise landscape and you’ll see that women have been leading the social enterprise revolution here for 200+ years, and there’s no reason we can’t continue to do so brilliantly.

* Disclaimer – My decision to focus on women in the United States is motivated by my limitations. I know U.S. history best and I set out for a short walk, not a global trek. I urge anyone with more diverse knowledge to share their own examples in the comments below.

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1. Elizabeth Ann Seton 

29 - Women in Social Enterprise Seton SmallElizabeth Ann Seton was determined to provide for her family after her husband’s death left her alone with five children. In 1809, she joined her sisters-in-law and four other women in Emmitsburg, MD to start what would begin as a girls’ boarding school and become the foundation of the Sisters of Charity.

Seton and her followers set up a free orphanage, a school for poor children and a hospital. At the time of her death, more than twenty communities of the Sisters of Charity had been created to provide for the poor.

Today, there are women of every denomination serving those in need. One fabulous example is Anju Bhargava, the founder of Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC), which advances seva (community social responsibility), interfaith collaboration and social justice.

2. Clara Barton

29 - Women in Social Enterprise Barton SmallWhen the Civil War struck in 1861, Clara Barton organized a campaign to collect supplies for troops. Following her success, she received official permission to spend the rest of the war going from battle to battle with her supplies, nursing skills and managerial capabilities.

Barton later traveled to Europe to provide relief assistance during the Franco-Prussian war and learned about the International Red Cross. She brought the concept home and founded the American Association of the Red Cross.

For the sake of my general argument, I’d also like to mention that Barton got much of her support from members of Ladies’ Aid societies. You know – the 7,000- 20,000 groups women formed during the Civil War to provide for wounded soldiers.

While the American Red Cross is alive and well, Barton’s work can also be seen as a forerunner to contemporary initiatives like the nonprofit SIRUM (Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine).

Co-founded by Stanford grads Kiah Williams, Adam Kircher and George Wang, SIRUM enables safe peer-to-peer redistribution of medicines. It allows those with unopened, unexpired medicines to send them directly to those in need. To date, SIRUM has helped over 20,000 patients get the medicine they need.

3. Jane Addams

29 - Women in Social Enterprise Addams SmallIn 1889, Jane Addams co-founded Hull House, a settlement house in a poor Chicago neighborhood, to create a space where individuals from different social classes could meet to enjoy civic, cultural, recreational and educational activities.

As she studied the needs of the working-class immigrants that populated the neighborhood, Addams amended Hull House’s offerings to include social services like day care for children with working mothers, low-cost housing, night school for adults and a public kitchen.

To increase their efficacy, Addams and ~25 other women at Hull House pioneered statistical mapping techniques to study disease, truancy and other troubles that disproportionately plague the urban poor. Addams also worked closely with female faculty at the University of Chicago to found its School of Social Work. Later, she became the first woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Correction and won a little something called The Nobel Peace Prize. NBD.

Now, there are more organizations doing social work in the U.S. than I can count. One particularly creative endeavor is the Old Skool Café, a restaurant founded by juvenile corrections officer Teresa Goines.

Goines tired of seeing optimistic teens leave detention only to encounter the same rough circumstances, so she started Old Skool Café. The restaurant is run and staffed by teens from difficult circumstances, providing them with jobs, career training and a support system. Life coaches help participants find housing, medical care, and a viable alternative to a life of crime.

Like Addams’ Hull-House, Goines’ Old Skool Cafe provides the urban poor with new opportunities to build happy, healthy lives.

4. Rachel Carson

29 - Women in Social Enterprise Carson SmallDubbed “The Mother of the Environmental Movement,” Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and writer whose work educated the public about the harmful effects of pesticides.

Carson’s increasing concern over agriculture’s heavy use of pesticides inspired her to study conservation. She began collecting scientific findings on pesticides as carcinogens, their bioaccumulation in plants and animals, and their impact on bird populations.

The book Silent Spring warned the public that indiscriminate and enthusiastic application of pesticides was poisoning plants, animals and other people. Though it wasn’t until after Carson’s death that the Environmental Defense Fund won a lawsuit against the government asserting citizens’ rights to a clean environment, its victory depended heavily on arguments she made. The founding of the EPA can also be linked to Carson since she highlighted the conflict of interest that resulted from tasking the USDA with regulating pesticides and promoting agricultural interests.

Carson’s work laid roots for the deep ecology movement, environmentalism, ecofeminism, and today’s green and sustainable businesses. One contemporary organization whose mission aligns with Carson’s work is Food & Water Watch (FWW), a nonprofit founded by Wenonah Hauter.

Hauter spent time working at the Union of Concerned Scientists before she founded FWW. The nonprofit works toward a world “where all people have the wholesome food, clean water and sustainable energy they need to thrive.”

Another Carson-esque crusader is Helaine Lerner, founder of GRACE Communications Foundation (GRACE). The Foundation works to “increase public awareness of the critical environmental and public health issues created by our current food, water and energy systems.”

It isn’t hard to image Carson, if she were alive today, working alongside Hauter and Lerner to promote sustainable practices that keep people – and the planet – safe.

5. “Lady Bird” Johnson

29 - Women in Social Enterprise Johnson SmallKnown to many as “The Environmental First Lady,” Lady Bird made environmental conservation a national priority. Her efforts to “beautify” America weren’t just asthetic – she advocated for “clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of…great parks and wilderness areas.” She also backed policies that addressed social issues like mental health, public transportation and crime.

Due to Lady Bird’s efforts, 200 different laws relevant to the environment passed during the Johnson administration. She created a Committee for a More Beautiful Capital that planted native flowers, shrubs and trees in Washington, DC. The committee visited low-income areas to clean up buildings and streets, refurbish schools, install recreation areas, and implement a “Projects Pride” program that employed students.

Lady Bird served as the National Chair of Head Start and saved the program when funding was threatened. She hoped it would save families “lost in a sea of too little of everything — jobs, education, and most of all perhaps — hope.”

Now, efforts to create beautiful, clean cities are all around us. A quick look around the Sustainable Cities Collective site reveals interest in creating recreational spaces in disadvantaged neighborhoods (KaBoom!) and sustainable, affordable public transportation (Embarq). A social enterprise called River of Flowers founded by Katherine Lwin supports the inclusion of native wild plants in agricultural and urban development. It’s hard to image these projects without the groundwork (no pun intended!) laid by Lady Bird Johnson.

I hope that this sporadic romp through U.S. history has highlighted how women have always played a key role in driving social and environmental change and that by the looks of things, we’re just getting started.

Which women do you see as pioneers of social change? Do you know of other social enterprises that might have drawn on the legacies left by the ladies mentioned above? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Alison was RoundPeg's content marketing specialist though November 2016. We are sure she still spends her days seeking inspiration, writing inspired content, then trying to inspire other people to read it! When she isn't trying to save the world by the might of her pen, she hangs out with her dog Wall-E, reads contemporary literature and eats an impressive amount of chocolate.
  • Ethically Styled

    Interesting read! It’s important to know the history of social enterprise and even better to highlight the fact that women were the pioneers. Great job Alison!

  • Alison

    I’m so glad that you found the article relevant 🙂 It’s certainly not an in-depth exploration of women in social enterprise but I guess that’s part of the point — these examples are not hard to find!!

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