This is What Feminist Philanthropy Looks Like

Rutgers University has announced the historic creation of the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies—a position made possible by a three-year, $3 million campaign involving over 400 donors.

Jewish Women’s Archive / Creative Commons

The occupant, being chosen from innovators around the world, will be responsible for teaching, researching and leading conversations that examine how media shapes culture. “We know that new media are transforming our governance,” Steinem wrote in a statement, “and also that they may be short on facts and context. We also know that heritage media haven’t always told an inclusive story.” The chair—a collaboration between the Rutgers’ Institute for Women’s Leadership, School of Communication Information and Department of Women’s and Gender Studies—will create an innovative space in academia for intersectional, inclusive feminist media analyses and discourse.

A team of volunteers, faculty and staff led the charge for an endowed chair in Steinem’s name after the death of Alison Bernstein in 2016. A steering committee for the chair brought together powerful media denizens and feminist leaders—including Carol Jenkins of the Women’s Media Center, Geraldine Laybourne of Oxygen Media and Bobbi Brown. Donors including Sherly Sandberg, the NoVo Foundation, the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, the George Lucas Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the James L. Knight Foundation gave over $500,000 each to see its creation. They were joined by over 400 individuals—including Rutgers President Robert Barchi, who made a matching pledge to push the campaign over the edge.

“Often, a chair is funded by a single entity,” said Rutgers University Foundation President Nevin Kessler in a statement. “That more than 400 individuals and 12 foundations contributed to this collaborative effort speaks to Alison’s prescience and the enduring appeal of Gloria’s values and mission. It also highlights the culture of philanthropy that is steadily growing in the Rutgers community and the amazing potential that culture offers for the university’s future.”

The path to the chair’s ultimate creation was one that fit precisely into Bernstein’s vision for a future in feminist philanthropy: one where donors, big and small, came together to sustain the future of women’s activism and feminist academia. That vision is rooted in the history of women’s studies: “As early as the 1920’s,” Bernstein explained in the Fall 2012 issue of Ms., “a group of academic women and their male allies realized that women faced discrimination in faculty hiring in large public and private research universities. Their solution was to create endowed chairs exclusively for women faculty, stipulating that the salaries and terms of employment had to be identical to those of faculty men. Decades later, women donors and male allies stepped up again to establish endowed chairs specifically for women’s studies.”

Bernstein, who was the director of Rutger’s Institute for Women’s Leadership, began a dogged effort to create the chair in 2014—hoping to establish a multidisciplinary teaching role across fields of media and social change as well as honor a living feminist icon. (The chair is the first academic position named for a living feminist.) “Endowing chairs, centers and programs ensures a permanent institutional presence for women’s studies,” Bernstein wrote, “especially in perilous budgetary times. Individuals able to give major sums will make a huge difference, but so, too, do smaller donors, because university leaders are influenced by the sheer number of donors committed to a program or faculty… The good news is that women are increasingly moving into the forefront of philanthropy as individual donors, in a position to put their funding where it can do the most good for the greatest number of other women.”

The creation also builds on Steinem’s legacy as the co-founder of Ms. Steinem, who has long focused on the intersections of media and systems of social power, fueled the women’s movement through media-oriented activism. The spirit of Ms. is also one that runs parallel to Bernstein’s academic vision: It began as a non-hierarchal publication funded mostly by reader support, and has now transformed into a non-profit publication, owned by the Feminist Majority Foundation, that both leads the charge on fighting for feminist values and reports on the work happening on the frontlines of women’s activism.

In the first-ever full-length issue of Ms., published in July 1972, the staff published a letter to readers explaining the impetus for launching what is now a historic feminist magazine:

First, there were some women writers and editors who started asking questions. Why was our work so unconnected to our lives? Why were the media, including women’s magazines, so rarely or so superficially interested in the big changes happening to women? Why were we always playing the game by somebody else’s (the publisher’s, the advertiser’s) rules?

Then, there were questions from activists; women who were trying to raise money for an information service and self-help projects, particularly for poor or isolated women, and having very little luck. Mightn’t a publication—say, a newsletter—serve to link up women, and to generate income as well?

The two groups met several times early in 1971, and agreed that we wanted a publication that was owned by and honest about women… The idea of a full-fledged magazine came up; a publication credentialed and controlled by women that could be as serious, outrageous, satisfying, funky, intimate, global, compassionate, and full of change as women’s lives really are.

Ms. has often uniquely connected feminist academia to on-the-ground activism, and has served, since its founding, as a platform for feminist leaders and thinkers to express themselves and rally troops for social change. It exemplifies the vision of Rutgers’ groundbreaking endowed chair in its founder’s name by living at the intersections of media, social justice and feminist theory. And in doing so, it has sustained a movement and charted its future.

“We salute Rutgers for its historic new position,” Kathy Spillar, Executive Editor of Ms. and Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said. “As we continue to build bridges between philanthropy, academia and activism, we can only hope that more institutions adopt the legendary visions Steinem, Bernstein and countless other feminists have long sought to make tangible.”

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms., Managing Editor of Argot Magazine and a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s also the co-host of THE BOSSY SHOW. Previously, she was the Community Director and Feminism Editor for Autostraddle, a Contributor at Mic, Blog Editor at WIYL and a SPARK blogger; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, MEL, BITCH and Feministing. She stays very zen in L.A. traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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