Laurie Burns McRobbie

“Women’s Legacies and Women’s Philanthropy”

Remarks to the Women’s Giving Circle of the Heritage Fund – Community Foundation of Bartholomew County


Thank you so much for the warm welcome. I am just delighted to be back in Columbus and here at the beautiful Republic Building, now home to the J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program at Indiana University’s School of Art, Architecture + Design. In fact, the last time I was here, I stood almost in this very spot to participate in the dedication of this wonderfully repurposed building and the inauguration of the architecture program, named for one of the towering figures in the city of Columbus and indeed in the world of modern design and manufacturing. That was a great day for Indiana University and the city of Columbus, the culmination of a long-held vision of many people, and one that is sure to serve the state and the nation for generations to come.

I’m very grateful to Tracy Souza for inviting me to speak tonight, because it means I get to come back to Columbus and see many friends but more importantly, because I get to engage with you on topics about which I’m passionate: women’s philanthropy, women’s legacies, architecture, and Indiana University.

As a founding member of the Women’s Philanthropy program at IU and the Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council that guides it, I’m sure we have common ground in our dedication to the role of philanthropy in improving communities and the quality of life for all.


City of ColumbusThat dedication is certainly on display here in Columbus. As you know well, Columbus is not a large city, and not located in the hotbeds of architecture and design on the east and west coasts. Yet here it is, with 7 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and a mecca for architecture students and buffs from all over the world.

Architecture is so multidisciplinary, with regard to not only math, engineering, and physics, but to culture, history, community, and art. Columbus reflects so many important elements of what defines greatness in an American city—in any city.

Significantly, most of the buildings that earned Columbus its designation and acclaim are public buildings – an elementary school, the city hall, the civic center, two extraordinary churches. And even more significant to my mind is that these buildings are not so much protected by local historic districts or city statutes; they are protected by the coming together of the people of Columbus who have created a culture of pride in their community and its ability to sustain a vision of the good society, over many years. People like you. Philanthropy is part of your civic heritage, deeply rooted in what it means to be a part of this city. The act of giving, preserving, and growing is something that Columbus is truly built upon.


Philanthropy, which Robert Payton defined as “voluntary giving for the public good”, is integral to the quality of our lives and our societies. And it is integral to how the public sector functions and thrives. It takes a combination of selflessness and grit to truly bring about change in a meaningful way.

Of course, giving and volunteering are part of being human, something we likely all grew up with and that we can often take for granted. But I believe it is at the heart of what it means to be a citizen. In a world that feels increasingly transactional, voluntarily choosing to do something without a quid pro quo can be a profound act, certainly of generosity but it is also in a sense, an act of faith in the public order. And these profound acts take place at all levels, in sometimes the smallest of ways.

Many of our most significant social improvements have been driven not only through big grants and gifts of the very wealthy, but through the everyday acts of regular citizens engaged in helping neighbors; organizing fundraisers, campaigns, and marches; going on mission trips through faith organizations; dropping a dime in a can at the grocery store; and working to preserve historic buildings.

All of you engage in these activities and many more, and you are also choosing to combine your civic pride and your philanthropic passions by being part of the women’s Giving Circle of the Heritage Fund.

I think this is really noble work and I admire you all for committing to it.


I want to focus my remarks on how women’s philanthropy is continuing to change the world, and on the importance of women’s legacies.

Let me start with legacies, with the importance of telling women’s stories from the past as well as the present, not just because doing so fills out the historical narrative or even sometimes corrects the historical narrative, but because it changes how we think about our own roles in the here and now. And it prepares us for a future where we are increasingly in the forefront.

We don’t have to look far to see examples of women moving into leadership roles, running for office, starting and expanding businesses, and a host of other occupations that would have been unthinkable in the not too distant past. In 1960, a little more than 10% of women were the chief breadwinner in their families; that number is now 42%.[1] Women currently hold 51% of personal wealth in the US, a percentage that is projected to grow over the next decade.[2] This has huge implications not only for philanthropy but for how the economy and government work.

Faced with these implications and trends, it may seem counter-intuitive to advocate for paying more attention to history, but I think it is crucial if we want to fully grasp the nature of leadership and how we can help the generations coming behind us feel a sense of ownership for our collective future.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve learned about a woman from the past who has done something utterly remarkable – an invention, a whole field of study, a work of creative genius – but who we (or perhaps just I) have never heard of. And when I learn about the extent of her legacy, I’m not only inspired and impressed, it deepens my sense of belonging, of ownership, of value. It gives me shoulders to stand on.

Elizebeth Friedman

Elizebeth Friedman

As you know, my career background is in technology, a field not exactly known for gender parity, but of course it turns out that many of the geniuses and pioneers of computing were women, often women we’ve never heard of, or if we have, not in the context of their extraordinary contributions.

I’ll give you two quick examples: Elizebeth Friedman, whose life spanned nearly the whole of the 20th century and who, along with her husband, essentially invented the field of cryptography, starting during World War I. She was actually born in Huntington, Indiana, just outside of Fort Wayne.

As a woman in her early twenties, she became one of the greatest codebreakers in the country, devising completely new conceptual approaches to breaking the most difficult ciphers. She was self-taught, and used her talents to catch smugglers during Prohibition; exposed Nazi spy rings across South America; and became a driving force in the creation of the NSA and modern intelligence, which has become a crucial discipline within computing.

Her husband William was equally influential, cracking the Japanese equivalent of the German Enigma machine that helped make Alan Turing famous. And of course, it is he who has been immortalized. Until very recently, Elizebeth, his equal and in some people’s minds, even the superior intellect, was invisible to those who followed in her footsteps.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Another example and likely more familiar at least to some of you: Hedy Lamarr.  She was best known as the world’s most beautiful woman in the 1930s and 1940s – a movie star and the model for Disney’s Snow White. But in between her work on the movie set, she was in her trailer or at home, tinkering with an invention in radio signaling called frequency hopping. It was useful during WWII for securing radio transmissions between ships and radio-controlled torpedoes, allowing the transmissions to avoid being jammed by the enemy. She held a patent on a technique that has led to many of the wireless communication technologies we use today, like Bluetooth.

Learning about these pioneers helped me feel more at home in my career, where even today there are not many women role models and where women are still under-utilized and under-celebrated for their contributions. That under-celebration can be toxic, keeping rewarding career paths and occupations less accessible and hospitable at a time when we need everyone at the table and stepping up to the many challenges in today’s world.

Denise Scott Brown

Denise Scott Brown

Architecture, sadly, is another field in which women have been marginalized, although the J Irwin Miller program and many others are working to change things.; A recent article in the magazine The Guardian highlighted the way women have been rendered less invisible or even invisible, despite their towering creative achievements.

Again, a couple of examples: the husband and wife architecture firm of Venturi Scott Brown was heralded by the 1991 Pritzker Prize jury as having “expanded and redefined the limits of the art of architecture in this century, as perhaps no other has.” The Prize, widely considered the equivalent of the Nobel, however, was awarded to Robert Venturi alone, excluding his equally influential wife, Denise Scott Brown.

Brits Who Built the Modern World

“The Brits Who Built the Modern World”

In a move that is almost laughable if it wasn’t so recent and so blatant, the promotional photos for the 2014 BBC series, “The Brits Who Built the Modern World,” literally erased Patty Hopkins, co-founder of the influential firm Hopkins Architects. These photos demonstrate a disturbing game of “spot the difference.”

Fortunately, we have other examples of where we have celebrated the contributions of women to their communities, architecturally as well as civically. One need not look very far in Columbus to find one: Xenia Miller, J Irwin’s wife and his partner in achieving this vision of Columbus as an architectural mecca.

Xenia Miller

Xenia Miller

Xenia’s community involvement was deep-seated: she embraced civic and cultural duties in the city and across the state. She worked closely with architect Alexander Girard, who, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, designed the famous Miller House and Garden, their family home. A true Midwesterner and in keeping with habits common to many accomplished women, she did not boast about her achievements. But she is getting her due with a recent publication called “Xenia Simons Miller: Prairie Modernist.” I’m looking forward to reading it.

So we need to tell these stories, because they help us all feel more at home in the professions and occupations we’ve chosen. And they help both our contemporaries and the next generation change their conceptions of both the past and the present. As the historian Anne Firor Scott put it in her landmark 1984 essay “On Seeing and Not Seeing: A Case of Historical Invisibility”[3]: “It is a truism, yet one easy to forget, that people see most easily things they are prepared to see and overlook those they do not expect to encounter.”

She was writing about the extraordinary phenomenon of women’s voluntary associations in building civil society and indeed, the non-profit sector itself, across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, which for many years went un-studied by social historians. Instead, the famous philanthropists and change-makers were people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, and more recently, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Important as these men were and are to philanthropy and social progress, they were far from the only ones.

Here in the 21st century, women’s philanthropy is finally getting its due as an area of historical, economic, and sociological study, and like the cases of women in technology, learning about women’s roles in giving has helped me feel that I belong in this work and that it is in many ways, the very heart of philanthropy.


The state of Indiana is home to another mecca, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, where the Women’s Philanthropy Institute has cast so much light on gender differences in giving and how these can inform and improve the practice of philanthropy and fundraising.

The research into women’s philanthropy has been underway for since the late 1990s but it has increased in visibility and scope in the last decade or so. I encourage you to visit the WPI website as they are continually publishing wonderful studies on various aspects of women’s giving and it’s enormously helpful in thinking about new ways to garner philanthropic support.

Discovering this research was a catalytic moment for an active group of IU alumnae who were looking for more opportunities to engage with the university, back in 2008. Michael had just become IU’s 18th president, making me the university’s first lady, and I was able to join in with this group in looking at how we could capitalize on the research and improve the experience of women donors and friends of IU. This research helped establish the signature Women’s Philanthropy program at Indiana University, led by the Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the high points, but let me run through a few findings [4]:

The first is the headline grabber, that across nearly all income groups, individual women and female-headed households give more and are more likely to give than are comparably-situated men. This always comes as a surprise to some, but there are reasons for this, and they lie in how women give, which can disguise their impact. Women are more likely to:

  • Give smaller gifts to a greater number of organizations
  • Give anonymously
  • Gravitate towards collective forms of giving to amplify their impact

The Women’s Giving Circle here is a great example of this aspect of engagement, as is the WPLC itself.

At IU, the WPLC functions as a particular kind of giving circle, in which we pool funds and offer a grant program that channels those funds to projects, departments, research and instructional programs, and student support across all campuses of IU. While giving circles can dilute the visibility of individuals, the enormous satisfaction that Council members get, and that I imagine all of you get, from joining together to learn more about the community’s needs and choose grant recipients is by far the bigger motivator, much more so for women than it is for men.

We have also learned that women tend to seek deep engagement with their areas of passion and interest. Building engagement opportunities into everything we do as leaders in women’s philanthropy is truly instrumental in maintaining a culture of giving.

And finally, we know that women are the primary transmitters of philanthropic values within the family, and for our work at IU, this translates to how we bring students into our events and programs, and how we cultivate the next generation of donors.


Women’s philanthropy at Indiana University is also focusing on legacies, through a project we call “Bridging the Visibility Gap”. With the university’s bicentennial less than a year away, it is a perfect time to uncover our own hidden figures, and ensure that the historical narrative of Indiana University is inclusive and complete.

Sarah Parke Morrison

Sarah Parke Morrison

It was just a little over 150 years ago that Sarah Parke Morrison, the first woman to enroll at Indiana University, walked into a classroom filled with male students to take her place. Today, women comprise the majority of students at IU, and the majority of IU’s roughly 700,000 living alumni around the world. However, if we count, as we have, the number of nameable things on all of IU’s campuses – buildings, classrooms, professorships, scholarships, and so forth – only 25% are named by or for women. Starting about five years ago, we sought to bring more women into public view by inaugurating the Women’s Portrait Exhibit in the East Lounge of the Indiana Memorial Union, to memorialize a number of notable women. And as part of the university’s bicentennial, we “Bridging the Visibility Gap”, which seeks to recognize the contributions of women and minorities to IU’s history through named professorships and scholarships, as well as various physical spaces.

Several interns in the Office of the Bicentennial have worked to assemble a database of nearly 2,000 names of women who were first in their disciplines, or first to enroll or graduate from a department, or who went on to great accomplishments after they left IU. A committee of senior faculty and administrators culled the list and with a great deal of effort, selected the first six to be recognized.

They are:

Tamar Althouse

Tamar Althouse

Tamar Althouse, the first female graduate of the Maurer School of Law in 1892, and the first woman to practice law in Vanderburgh County. She went on to work for the Indiana Speaker of the House and to found a network of women’s rotary clubs across the state, in the decades before she could even vote. While her history is known to many Law School students and faculty, nothing in the school bears her name. Fundraising is underway for a named scholarship to honor her.

Alice MacDonald Nelson

Alice MacDonald Nelson

Alice McDonald Nelson, Director of Residence Life from 1920 to 1965. She is credited with creating the university’s residence hall program and resident scholarships for students who, as she put it, were “long on brains but short on cash, which became a model for other universities in the Big Ten and beyond. Ironically, Alice Nelson has a building named for her, but it has been known primarily by its street address – 801 North Jordan – and for a time, the sign outside her building de-emphasized her name. The sign has been redesigned with her name prominently shown, and fundraising is underway for a scholarship in her name.

Ingeborg Schmidt

Ingeborg Schmidt

Ingeborg Schmidt, a German immigrant after World War II who was on the faculty of IU’s School of Optometry from 1954-1970. She discovered the “Schmidt sign”, a genetic marker for color-blindness that earned her international renown as “the first lady of vision science”. Aside from a few photographs of graduating classes, there is nothing in today’s School of Optometry to recognize her, and the only photo in IU’s possession came from the Smithsonian’s collection of photographs of women scientists (shown here). Fundraising is underway for a named professorship in Vision Science, and a portrait is being commissioned.

Martha Dawson

Martha Dawson

Martha Dawson, who was the first African American woman to become a tenured professor at IU. She pioneered multicultural approaches in her field of elementary education, and became known nationally. She moved from IU to Hampton University in Virginia, and when she passed away in 2016 the Commonwealth of Virginia Senate passed a resolution celebrating her for her many achievements. Martha is well known to her School of Education colleagues but her impact went far beyond her own discipline. A professorship in the School of Education will bear her name, and a portrait will be commissioned.

Camilla Williams

Camilla Williams

Camilla Williams, who was a voice professor at the Jacobs School of Music from 1971 to 1997 and who broke the color barrier on several opera stages. She sang the national anthem on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial moments before Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped to the podium to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Fundraising is underway for a professorship in Voice named for her, which is expected to help increase faculty diversity in the Jacobs School of Music as well. A portrait has also been commissioned.

Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for her groundbreaking work in polycentric governance, refuting economic theories positing the over-consumption of commonly held resources in the absence of regulation or market forces. Lin and her husband and collaborator Vincent are memorialized in the name of the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which is how Lin wanted it despite the fact that it was she alone who earned the Nobel. Several years after her death, her colleagues and friends are choosing to respectfully give Lin the recognition she deserves in her own right by commissioning a statue that will grace an outdoor area named for her near Woodburn Hall, home of the Political Science department at IU Bloomington.

We are already working on the research that will bring more of these women into the light, along with other underrepresented populations who have gone unrecognized. More recently, we have established a Visibility Endowment to ensure that we can continue to recognize women and minorities in perpetuity, with markers, statues, portraits, and various other naming opportunities that will further connect our current students and alumnae with a more complete picture of the culture and history of Indiana University. It’s this long legacy of scholarship and service that teaches us how much women have done to produce the world we live in. And that teach us how important it is that women continue to be in the forefront of shaping the future, because the future needs all of us.


Today, we face domestic and global problems of almost overwhelming scale—and in an environment where it sometimes feels impossible to find solutions. And yet, we only have to look around us to see where individuals like you and collectives like the Women’s Giving Circle are leading the way to find those solutions.

The desire to make positive transformation, through individual acts of philanthropy and through combined acts of associational effort, in the context always of thinking of the larger public good, is what will keep us moving forward.

The aims toward which we put these individual and collective actions are important to get right and they must rest on fundamental values of equality, openness, respect for others, and commitment to the truth, but we also have to remember that the acts themselves are generative – our children are watching us and seeing the examples we set.

Through this strong sense of community pride and your sense of the public good, you have sustained a vision for your city that continues to inspire others and is leading to new acts of creativity and progress.

Thank you.

Source Notes

[1] See “U.S. Women on the Rise as Family Breadwinner”, Catherine Rampell, New York Times, May 29, 2013; “Breadwinning Mothers Are Increasingly the U.S. Norm”, Sarah Jane Glynn, Center for American Progress, December 19, 2016.

[2] BMO Financial Group, “BMO Report: Despite Controlling $14 Trillion in Wealth, American Women Still Have Challenges to Overcome”, April 2, 2015

[3] Anne Firor Scott, “On Seeing and Not Seeing: A Case of Historical Invisibility”. The Journal of American History, Vol. 51, No. 1, June 1984.

[4] See “Debra J. Mesch, “Women Give 2010: New Research About Women and Giving.” Indianapolis, IN, Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and other studies published by the WPI.