Women in Philanthropy: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller

John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard)



Case Study Sector


One of four cases—on Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Elizabeth "Betty" Bottomley Noyce, Madam C.J. Walker, and Mrs. Russell Sage (Margaret Olivia Slocum)—that provide essential histories of the lives and philanthropic motivations and choices of some of the most significant women philanthropists in American history. The cases provide useful material for those looking to enliven historical philanthropy courses with biographical materials. At the same time, they serve as points of comparison for understanding contemporary philanthropy.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller used her public role as the daughter and wife of well-known and powerful men of politics and industry to exercise philanthropic leadership. She was a cultural reformer, her mission to democratize the art to which she had been so privileged. Art, she believed, had the power to transform lives. With this notion, relentless energy, and care, she founded the first American Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City in 1932. Mrs. Rockefeller’s legacy remains MoMA and a great deal more. Abby Rockefeller’s life’s work emerged out of personal commitment and passion—with the politics of her day threaded throughout. Throughout her life, Mrs. Rockefeller supported a range of progressive social causes from birth control to union leagues, and, consistently, with more than financial resources. “It was not a matter of the grand lady playing dairymaid,” says her biographer Bernice Kert of her trips to the New Jersey community house, Bayway Cottage, which Mrs. Rockefeller opened as a center for poor women and children in 1920.



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