Women of power, wisdom do the honors of putting money VTC where their hearts are

November 11, 1997|By SUSAN REIMER

WOMEN SPENT MONEY long before they earned much of it.

It took economists much too long to realize that women made the spending decisions in the American family whether they worked outside the home or not.

Once they understood that women were the ones who decided which cereal, which car, and what men's underwear to buy -- and that they exercised some conscience when they did -- consumer science caught up with reality.

Last week in Washington, there was an opportunity to see women making another kind of decision about money.

How to give it away.

The Sara Lee Foundation, named for the desserts that were named for the baker's daughter, honored their 1997 Frontrunners: Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Washington Post Chairman Katharine Graham, former Poet Laureate of the United States Rita Dove and anti-handgun activist Sarah Brady.

At a reception at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, each of these four women was handed a check for $50,000 to donate to a cause of their choice.

O'Connor sent her check to Stanford Law School to support its legal aid clinic. Law students, under the guidance of faculty, help women and children living in poverty around Stanford who are in danger of domestic violence.

The students help obtain restraining orders and resolve conflicts over child custody, visitation, child support and government benefits.

"The problem of domestic violence is so acute," O'Connor said before the awards ceremony. "This program is a good model for what can be done. It uses law students to intervene quickly and effectively."

Graham's $50,000 donation goes to a woman in whom she passionately believes, Belle Sawhill, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, "one of the most talented, effective and dedicated leaders in the country."

"There was really no choice for me," said Graham before the ceremony. "It is a great cause and I believe in the person who is at the top.

"Teen pregnancy is an enormous problem. I don't know if we can get anywhere fighting it. But I think you have to invest in people you believe in."

Brady is the wife of Jim Brady, the press secretary permanently injured in the attempted assassination of President Reagan by John Hinckley. Her donation will extend to 10,000 more kids a program that teaches them how to resolve conflicts without violence and to resist peer pressure to use guns.

It is widely assumed that Brady's anti-handgun activism, which culminated in the passage of the Brady Bill, is a result of the shooting that left her husband in a wheelchair. Not exactly.

"All of my energy became focused on taking care of my husband and 2-year-old son and keeping our family together. Politics and gun control were the furthest thing from my mind," she said in her acceptance speech.

Her activism did not begin until a few years later, when young Scott was 5 and found a gun on the seat of a friend's pickup truck. Not until she reached for it did she realize it was real and it was loaded. And it was the same kind of handgun -- a .22 caliber -- that had injured her husband, Scott's father.

"I was furious. What kind of world did we live in where 5-year-olds and mentally unstable people like John Hinckley could easily get their hands on guns?

"I picked up the phone and called Handgun Control. And I've been at it ever since."

Dove's donation follows her own daughter to Mary Baldwin College in Virginia and a nurturing and protective early admissions program for exceptionally gifted girls of 14 to 16.

The program not only allows young girls to skip two to four years of high school and enroll in college, but it gives them the social support and structure they need to keep from feeling isolated or overwhelmed while living among college students. Dove's donation will go toward recruitment of minority girls and girls in public schools.

"Because I am an educator, I looked to education," said Dove. Now a professor of English at the University of Virginia, she was the youngest and the first African American poet laureate in U.S. history.

"It was a thrill to be able to decide what to do with the donation. I knew the money would make an impact. These young girls are trying to be the best they can be when everyone around them is saying, 'Be pretty, be stupid.'

"This program gives these girls a chance to develop their phenomenal gifts and at the same time, grow up."

Elynor Williams, Sara Lee's vice president for public responsibility, has overseen the Frontrunner Awards for 11 years and she says a woman's charitable instincts can be different from a man's.

"Men tend to donate to something if it is a good idea, if it has measureable results, if it is good for their company or if they have friends connected with it.

"Women tend to give more often where they have a concern about an issue or where it connects with their value system," said Williams.

"These things are very personal, but women seem to do it more from a value-based point of view."

In truth, there is not a lot of latitude in the Sara Lee Awards. The honorees are asked to make their donations to non-profit organizations that address issues of concern to women.

"We feel an obligation to give back," said Williams. "We choose women to uplift and hold up as role models. But it is also important that women pass something along to other women."

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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