The Boston Women’s Fund is celebrating 40 years of radical giving. But like many landmark occasions, this one has modest beginnings. BWF was not established through the wealth of one family, or pooled funds from wealthy individuals — it was started by a group of everyday women, connected by their ideas and political and social commitments as feminists, and a conviction that a better world was possible.
Shirley Chilsom famously said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a
folding chair." Perhaps in that same spirit, in 1981, roughly 70 to 100 women gathered in a basement on Hampshire Street in Cambridge at New Words Bookstore, the only feminist bookstore in Boston, to discuss the idea of starting something new.
M. Brinton Lykes was one of those women and is today among the seven we recognize as Boston Women’s Fund’s founding mothers.
“It was women from all different parts of Boston, white women, women of color, lesbians, straight women. Women who knew each other and women who didn’t know each other at all,” she said. Some in the room had been connected with the Ms. Foundation and other national efforts to start women’s funds, but all were aligned about the need for change in support for women in the greater Boston communities.
Two women, Rachel Burger and Molly Lovelock, who worked at Transition House, a nonprofit serving women, were in attendance, as well. They spoke about how difficult it was to get funding for Transition House. They were constantly being turned down by funders or asked to submit longer proposals. The idea arose to create a foundation run by women for women.
“A lot of people at that first meeting were enthusiastic and said ‘Yes, this should be done!’ And a much, much smaller number of women said ‘Oh yeah, we should do this.”
Ten to 15 people met again to find out if they were on the same page. Though united by an overarching goal to support women’s grassroots efforts in Boston, the differences among them emerged over time. Brinton describes those early days as including many meetings and long conversations before the group had built an identity for the fund and how it would operate.
There were a few things they did know:
The group wanted to fund women’s organizing in Boston and initiatives that would support a number of women, not single individuals.
They prioritized projects working across race, class, abilities, marginalizations, and diversities (intersectionality).
They wanted to support access to services that could foster women’s ability to drive change in their communities.
They wanted the fund to be run by a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of women.
They were deeply committed to providing seed or startup money for groups that didn’t have access to other foundations.
Supporting grassroots women was their priority. They were not locked into particular issues or interest areas.
“We were new, we were the only thing around at the time that was committed to giving money to girls and women, and to prioritizing low-income women and women who were the most marginalized,” said Brinton. “There were other groups around that were doing things with particular focuses, but we said, we will give to ANY women’s group in the Greater Boston area.”
(Brinton acknowledges that they used the word “women” because, at the time, they perceived that as inclusive of all who identified as women; had the group been differently constituted or had a greater understanding of nonbinary and trans-identified individuals, they may have chosen different words to capture that inclusivity. Today, the Boston Women’s Fund is dedicated to supporting women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals.)
The group created a coordinating committee comprised of Brinton, a professor of community psychology; Renae (Scott) Gray, staff person at Haymarket People’s Fund, Jean Entine, from the Boston Foundation; Marion Lill, an attorney; Kip Tiernan from the Poor People’s United Fund and Rosie’s Place; and Cindy Chin, Director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women’s Service Groups.
This group was largely white, however. So the leaders created an advisory board that was more diverse and included, among others: Margaret Burnham, an attorney; Ruth Hubbard, professor of Biology; Karen Lindsey; a poet; Barbara Gray, a state representative from Framingham, and Beverly Smith, a Black lesbian feminist who was a part of the Combahee River Collective.
They could afford to hire just one staff person. Everyone else was an unpaid volunteer.
Building Founding Principles
Each woman was involved in community work that informed their priorities for the fund. Brinton, a New Orleans native, moved to Boston for graduate studies and was involved in starting a women’s studies program at the Harvard Divinity School. She’d been trained in antiracism work and had learned from women of color how difficult it is for those who have benefitted from white supremacy to create anti-racist organizations. To her, building a diverse fund on anti-racism practices was vital.
“I feel like we lost a few white women because they were tired of talking about undoing racism as a priority agenda,” Brinton shared.
The group was also made of women of varied socio-economic statuses. Brinton describes that Kip Tiernan, another woman in this early group, was very connected to poor women of all races and ethnicities. She and others felt strongly that this fund had to be for all women, and also welcome all women contributing at whatever level they could. Even if someone could only give $1, the team welcomed the contribution and the involvement of these donors.
Many funds around the country at the time had been started and run by wealthy white women, but BWF had different intentions, said Brinton. “I think from the beginning, the idea of this fund was ‘that’s not who we are; that’s not how we want to start. That’s not what we want to prioritize,” Brinton said.
The group wanted a fund created by and for those who had been persistently excluded. “We wanted to prioritize what today people would call intersectionality, being very clear that the people who are at the top of our list to support are the people who are the most marginalized, the people who have least access to material resources —- but deep and longstanding access to knowledge and skills for organizing.”
They debated everything from whether or not to have an endowment fund, how to build a decision-making structure that wasn’t hierarchical, to what “Greater Boston” entailed.
They were in agreement, however, in their frustration about mainstream grant application requirements and that foundations didn’t often fund women. Completing the applications required a certain level of education and vocabulary that the group found exclusionary.
So they made a strong commitment to create a simple application process and to offer technical, skill-building assistance, too.
They also established an allocations committee that included community members so that the people issuing grants extended beyond those running the fund. This method, which BWF still uses today, was influenced by practices that some in the group had participated in at Haymarket People’s Fund, Brinton noted.
By June of 1983, Boston Women’s Fund was incorporated, and in 1984 gave out our first grants to the Coalition of Basic Human Needs, Finex House, Traditional Childbearing Group, Chimera Anon, and Massachusetts Women of Color Organization. Years later, BWF launched the Young Sisters For Justice Program which brought in young women across backgrounds, taught them critical skills, and empowered them to make funding decisions. Today, BWF’s youth focus lives on as the GROWUP LeadHership initiative.
The Boston Women’s Fund was born out of a desire to create a foundation that was more inclusive and equitable, a reaction to the challenges these founding mothers experienced and witnessed themselves. It was a space that always put people first, valued the collective, and sought genuine partnership with those they funded, principles BWF still holds today.
“We wanted women who received grants to feel like they owned the fund. Not that the fund was donating to them, but rather that the fund was all of us,” Brinton said. “A lot of women’s funds that were started at the time didn’t have that commitment.”
To date, BWF has invested over $7.6 million dollars in more than 385 grant awards.
M. Brinton Lykes, Ph.D., is a professor of Community-Cultural Psychology and co-director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College. Lykes is also a co-founder and current or former board member on several NGOs in addition to the Boston Women's Fund, including Women’s Rights International, Impunity Watch, and the Ignacio Martín-Baró Initiative of Wellbeing and Human Rights at Grassroots International.