Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3

Studying Philanthropy through Biography

by Kathleen Mills

When Andrea Walton decided to write about Indiana philanthropist Clementine Miller Tangeman’s contributions of time and money toeducation, religion, and social organizations, she started as any researcher would: She looked for a paper trail—newspaper articles, books, letters—about Tangeman, who was then in her late 80s and living in Columbus, Indiana.

But Walton, an assistant professor of education and philanthropic studies at Indiana University Bloomington, didn’t find much to go on. The press tended to focus on Tangeman’s brother, although the siblings undertook much of their philanthropic work together. Walton explains, “All of the articles had lines like: ‘. . . and his sister.’ And she was shy too.”

Andrea Walton, Assistant Professor of Education and Philanthropic Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

Female philanthropists, like Tangeman, have played a key role in the history of American education, but when the story of philanthropy in American education is told, it tends to be framed around philanthropic institutions or philanthropic men. This is, in part, because of the lack of historical documents relating to women’s philanthropic role in the history of higher education. “What historians mostly do is have a conversation. That conversation takes place in the literature. If there’s no literature, there’s no conversation,”Walton says. The role of women in the philanthropy of education, has been and continues to be a large one that is ripe for exploration, she believes.

“You can look at women’s philanthropy as a lens on the history of education,” says Walton, who received her doctorate in history and education from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1995 and came to IU in 1996. “When you look at philanthropy, you see women in education in a different light.” For women living in the early part of the twentieth century, philanthropy was a field where they could apply their talents. “It was a culture in which they would be successful and powerful without pushing the envelope of what it meant to be a woman,” she says. In Tangeman’s time, philanthropy “created worlds of possibility and influence” for women. Some “used education as a method for social reform,” Walton says. Ironically, women were raising money for liberal arts colleges before they were allowed admission into them, she notes. In the colonial period, women gave blankets and silver to Harvard and other colleges and in the nineteenth century raised funds for the denominational colleges, most of which were all-male.

Walton, who taught in New Delhi, India, and at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania before entering graduate school, had planned to concentrate on international educational development until she took a class with two professors who studied the history of philanthropy. Walton changed focus when she met Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, now a professor of history and education at New York University who has written a history of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the late Lawrence A. Cremin, who was a leading figure in the field of educational history and president of the Spencer Foundation. “I decided to take the course on the history of education in the U.S., and I switched to the history of education after my master’s,” she explains. “I don’t think anyone could walk away from that class without an interest in philanthropy and education.”

Walton was a Fellow at the Center for the Study of American Culture and Education at NYU in 1995–1996 when she was commissioned by the center and funded by the Lilly Endowment to write about Tangeman. “The folks at the Lilly Endowment were interested in studying philanthropy through a biographical lens,” Walton explains. That fit perfectly with Walton’s own research goals, so she quickly accepted the commission and was off to Columbus, Indiana, to interview Tangeman.

Clementine Miller Tangeman (1905–1996) grew up in a family where philanthropy was a given.

Clementine Miller Tangeman receives the Founder’s Day Medal on September 13, 1987, from Richard Dickinson, then president of Christian Theological Seminary. Tangeman served on the CTS Board of Trustees from 1959 to 1967 and was instrumental in expanding the seminary’s facilities and building the Sweeney Chapel.

“Within her family tradition, belief in civic involvement was anchored in a religious outlook that, as her uncle Will Irwin might have put it, went hand in hand with ‘good business sense,’” Walton writes in “A Portrait of Clementine Miller Tangeman.”
Tangeman’s grandmother, mother, and aunt were all dedicated members of the Disciples of Christ Church, and all “found in philanthropy an avenue for growing in faith while helping others,” Walton writes. Tangeman followed suit, volunteering her time and giving her money to the Disciples of Christ Church (living by the church’s “deeds not creeds” motto). She also was a benefactor of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. and her alma maters, Emma Willard School (she was the school’s first female trustee) and Smith College. She also served just behind the front line in Anzio, Italy, with the Red Cross during World War II. Tangeman believed that volunteering was part of being an adult in the community, Walton explains. For Tangeman, giving was not simply an act of charity. It was an exchange, in which both giver and receiver benefited. “Philanthropy was an exchange, an educational process,” Walton explains of Tangeman’s philosophy. “Philanthropy was more than just giving money.” Tangeman was at first reluctant to be the focus of Walton’s research. The Columbus woman had never sought publicity for her good deeds. Eventually, however, she agreed to let Walton interview her. “I think she said it was OK because she really saw it as a way to preserve her story, that her story could be instructive to someone else,” Walton says.

Walton’s interviews with the philanthropist helped her uncover the “embeddedness” of Tangeman’s life as a philanthropist. In writing a biography of Tangeman, Walton had to “simultaneously illuminate the background of family, faith, community, and education.” That’s important, because Tangeman’s philanthropy cannot be understood apart from her the rest of her life, Walton believes.

Walton published “A Portrait of Clementine Miller Tangeman” as a stand-alone volume rather than in an academic journal because she hopes people working in philanthropic organizations will read it. “I wanted it to be accessible,” Walton says of the paper. “I wanted people on boards (of philanthropic organizations) to be able to share a vignette of a leader they admired.” Walton also uses the Tangeman paper and a film about Tangeman’s brother, J. Irwin Miller, who has had high-level posts with Cummins Engine Corporation and worked on several presidential commissions, with her students. In her History of Philanthropy in Education doctoral seminar, Walton presents the Tangeman piece as an example of how to bring forth some complexities of philanthropy through the biography of one philanthropist.

“It is in the story of a life, interweaving tradition, experience, and belief, that the true complexity of human philanthropy is revealed,” Walton writes in her Tangeman portrait. Walton encourages her students to use biography in their research into philanthropy because it provides a more thorough picture of the philanthropist. Of Tangeman, Walton explains: “I tried to look at what it was—in her family, in her church, in a small town—that shaped her sensibility about giving.” By using biography, “you see it differently; you see how philanthropy plays out in the life of an individual.” In organizational histories, “people are reduced.”

The study of philanthropy through biography does not seek to identify a “representative philanthropic life,” Walton says. The goal of such a portrait, rather, is “to capture the essence of a life richly lived in ‘understated complexity,’ as one colleague put it, to illuminate a particular woman’s career as philanthropist and volunteer,” she writes. Through biography, Tangeman’s unique philosophy of philanthropy can be seen in relation to the rest of her life.

Just as Tangeman was driven to philanthropy by family tradition, Walton’s students often choose research topics based on their personal experiences with philanthropy and volunteerism. A nurse in Walton’s class researched the public health activities of Lillian Wald, a settlement worker with New York’s Jewish community. Another student, who had a background in fund raising, studied the extent and importance of private giving to public institutions in Indiana. A student who was a lawyer looked at the relationship among events on campus in the 1960s, the changes in tax law, and in giving by alumni and alumnae. Not all of Walton’s students are inspired in their research by their own experience with philanthropy and volunteerism. Some students see the academic study of philanthropy as an important part of their professional preparation. It provides a lens for understanding issues of access, equity, and leadership. Two students in the curriculum and instruction program studied the role of philanthropy in shaping the curriculum and teacher training at two prominent historically black institutions, Hampton and Tuskegee. Another student in the higher education program is writing a dissertation on Charles Johnson, the first black president of Fisk University. “There is growing interest in this area among students across academic programs,” she notes.
To help her students start on their research, Walton takes them to the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy so they may use its “wonderful research library.” She praises the center for “the wonderful way it gets (scholars) out of the pigeon holes of academic departments.”

Walton talks with her students in C750/H637 History of Philanthropy and Education in the United States, a graduate class in the IU School of Education.

The Tangeman project has inspired Walton, a New Jersey native, to further explore educational philanthropy by women and to look at the role Midwesterners have played in giving to higher education. Walton participated in an NYU conference on the history of philanthropy in Cleveland this past summer. “I’m fascinated by what it is about the Midwest that engages people,” Walton says. “Why not study philanthropy by region, besides race, class, and gender?” She says interest is growing among her students and her colleagues in studying philanthropy by region.
But Walton is not finished with women’s contributions to higher education just yet. The study of philanthropy can benefit by looking at the history of education, Walton believes. Historians of education have committed a “big oversight” in not fully exploring the role of private benefaction, she contends. “They have often only looked at government funding, and there has been so much through private benefaction and alumni and alumnae giving,” she says.

In the larger history of private philanthropy in education, there are other, smaller histories to be researched. “Women as trustees at women’s colleges—that is a story that needs to be told,” she says. It is a story Walton is pursuing. She is examining the work of Ella Weed, a trustee who served as dean of Barnard College when the school first opened in 1889. “She showed the leadership needed to bridge the worlds of women’s education and a male-dominated university,” Walton says of Weed. In the twentieth century, female trustees strengthened Barnard College’s endowment. Specifically, in the 1950s, they created two endowed chairs at the college. “This was at a time when women’s education was supposed to be stagnant and ruled by domesticity,” she says. “The farsightedness and willingness to contribute financially enabled Barnard’s female trustees to play a clear role in assuring Barnard’s mission as a liberal arts college for women.”

The study of women’s contributions to institutions of higher education, of philanthropy at historically black colleges, and of philanthropy by region can all add tremendously to scholars’ understanding of the history of philanthropy, Walton says. Research into these often-neglected areas she hopes, “can greatly enrich our vision of American philanthropy, past and future.”