BOOK REVIEW: ‘Daughters of the Declaration’: How Women ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ from 1778 to 1938 Spearheaded Drive to Make the Declaration of Independence More Than Just Words

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Daughters of the Declaration': How Women 'Social Entrepreneurs' from 1778 to 1938 Spearheaded Drive to Make the Declaration of Independence More Than Just Words

The Declaration of Independence — written by a man, Thomas Jefferson, with input from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams — presented a framework for the unique experiment that was the United States of America, but it took women “social entrepreneurs” of all classes, white and black, gentile and Jewish, from privileged backgrounds like Olivia Sage to those of extreme poverty like Mary McLeod Bethune to make the document a reality from 1778 to 1938, say Claire Gaudiani and David Graham Burnett in their groundbreaking “Daughters of the Declaration: How Women Social Entrepreneurs Built the American Dream” (PublicAffairs, 352 pages, notes, bibliography, index, $26.99).

The pioneering Declaration of Independence in 1776 stated that the new nation created from a diverse group of British colonies would be built on the belief that “all men are created equal, and are endowed…with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To an overwhelming extent, the challenge of turning these ideals into reality for all citizens was taken up by many exceptional American women from diverse backgrounds.

Some are familiar — although none are as celebrated as they should be — and others are relatively unknown except to scholars.


David Graham Burnett,

David Graham Burnett

Among those in the latter category during the Revolutionary period the authors cite Catherine Ferguson (c1774-1854), an enslaved woman who bought her freedom and raised the capital to create a home-based “Sabbath-school”, to teach poor black and white children to read on their only day off from toil. Her system was replicated throughout New York City.


“Her first challenge was simply to reach the children,” Gaudiani and Burnett write. “The only day of the week that might work was ‘the Sabbath,’ the day when child laborers were not required to work. So Ferguson initiated the nation’s first “Sabbath School” in her home in 1793. It was not the Sunday School of more modern times. It was a full class day focused on a mostly secular curriculum. Ferguson accepted black and white students.
“Poor children could not, of course, pay for tuition. Ferguson would have to fundraise to keep her school going. Undaunted, she put her baking talents to work. Her specialty was wedding cakes and she used the income from her baking enterprise to buy books and to pay additional instructors — to assist in tutoring the children.”


Claire Gaudiani

Claire Gaudiani


Many years later, women like Florence Kelley (1859-1932), Julia Lathrop (1858-1932) and Lillian Wald (1867-1940) were advocates for such varied areas of interest as professionalizing nursing, ending child labor and using scientific research skills to work on behalf of juvenile justice.


Both Kelley, who wrote the pioneering anti-child labor book “Our Toiling Children” and Lathrop, appointed by President William Howard Taft in 1912 to head the newly created Children’s Bureau, were law school graduates but were prohibited by the laws of much of their lives from practicing their profession — a handicap they overcame by their networking abilities, their friendship and their inspiration from Jane Addams (1860-1935) of Chicago’s famous Hull House, a model for settlement houses throughout the nation. The authors stress (Page 218) that women social entrepreneurs were much better at coalition building that the men who ran the competing labor unions, none of which accepted women as members. Chicago plays a major role in creating opportunities for women social entrepreneurs, the authors write, noting the contributions of the University of Chicago, which accepted women graduate students from its founding by John D. Rockefeller in 1892, as well as Hull House.


Frances Perkins (1882-1965), the first woman to be named to a cabinet post when she was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, is perhaps the most famous woman profiled in the book. The authors write that she was a driven, determined woman who never let a bunch of carping, sniveling, men get in her way. She was, like Mary Bethune and Julia Lathrop, a successful social entrepreneur before she entered government work in New York state under the Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt administrations, and later serving FDR and Truman in her long life. She was the driving force behind creating the Social Security system in 1935, something the authors say FDR was not driven to do. The authors quote Maurine Mulliner, a senatorial assistant who left that post to join the Social Security Board: “I don’t think that President Roosevelt had the remotest interest in a Social Security bill or program. He was simply pacifying Frances.”

Among the many women profiled by the authors in “Daughters of the Declaration”:

* Elizabeth Seton, a widowed mother of four raised as an Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism, the founder of the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity. This enterprise created and staffed schools and orphanages that educated millions of the nation’s poorest citizens.


* Mary Elizabeth Lange, a black Caribbean refugee who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the world’s first black religious order. Both the Sisters of Charity and the Oblate Sisters of Providence are still in business “creating human capital.”


* Elizabeth Stott, in an effort to create a “market-driven” solution to enable local female victims of “sudden calamities” to support themselves, founded the Philadelphia Women’s Depository, which sold hand-made goods on consignment. The idea was taken up by Candace Wheeler, who built the women’s exchange idea into a national network selling millions of dollars of goods and services, enabling millions of women to achieve self-reliance.


* Frances Willard, who campaigned fearlessly for an end to the abuse of alcohol. Her Home Protection League attracted more women than the much more radical women’s suffrage-focused organizations, the authors write.


* Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (1828-1918) inherited great wealth from her husband, railroad magnate and financier Russell Sage, and named the foundation she created for him. The Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907 and still in operation, was, the authors write, one of the nation’s first “think-tank foundations”, the model for ones later created by Rockefeller and Ford. Olivia Sage was Russell Sage’s second wife and also endowed Russell Sage College.


I did see a couple of errors in the book: On Page 109, the authors mention the assassination of President “William” Garfield. The second president to be assassinated (after Lincoln) was James A. Garfield. (Four American presidents have been assassinated: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and John F. Kennedy). On Page 185, they mention Chicago department store founder Marshall “Fields”. Of course it’s Marshall Field, as they correctly write on Page 73. The authors state on Page 105 that Lincoln’s inaugural ball was in 1860; it was held the evening of March 4, 1861, after Lincoln was sworn in.


These quibbles aside, I heartily recommend “Daughters of the Declaration” as required reading for March, Women’s History Month. It’s not only informative, it’s entertaining.
About the authors

Claire Gaudiani, PhD, is an expert on the history and economics of American philanthropy. She served from 1988–2001 as president of Connecticut College, where she was also professor of French. During her tenure at the Yale Law School (2001–2004), she wrote The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism (Henry Holt/Times Books). From 2004-2009 she served as clinical professor at the Heyman Center for Philanthropy at New York University. Gaudiani has served as director of numerous corporate and social profit enterprises specializing in corporate governance issues. Her current directorships include The Henry Luce Foundation, MBIA Inc., and The Council for Economic Education. Gaudiani is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of the Rosso Medal for Distinguished Service to Philanthropy from Indiana University. She has received ten honorary doctorates and three distinguished teaching awards. For more information,

David Graham Burnett, PhD, is Claire’s husband of forty-three years as well as her partner in Gaudiani Associates. Burnett is a continuing educator who has held senior administrative positions at Indiana University and the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the research division of Pfizer, Inc. in 1988 as director of human resources. In 1999, he became head of the Pfizer Research University, responsible for the management and dissemination of proprietary scientific knowledge across the research division. He retired in 2004, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Graduate School of New York University. He is a graduate of Princeton and Indiana universities.



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