Just before she married, Helen LaKelly Hunt’s father called her fiancé into his study for a two-hour, closed-door meeting. She was told later it was to discuss her "financial situation", something no one had ever spoken to her about. As the daughter of one of America’s richest men — Texan oil tycoon H.L. Hunt — Helen says she was expected to be no more than "a southern belle who just smiled sweetly at the smart men who handled the money".
Today, at 61, Hunt is a successful businesswoman, feminist activist, and one of America’s leading philanthropists. The pivotal moment for Hunt in breaking out of what she calls her "golden handcuffs" was when she discovered the extent of her wealth by reading about it in Forbes magazine. She also discovered that her money was held in a trust fund controlled by her brother’s fraternity "brother". The fight to regain control of this fund was, she says, "radicalising".
Hunt is in Melbourne and Sydney this week to launch the Australian arm of a campaign she started in the United States called Women Moving Millions. It’s a sort of sisterhood of the super-wealthy that asks rich women — or "women of high net worth" as they’re more delicately referred to in philanthropic circles — to donate a million dollars apiece. The money is then distributed to organisations that support women and children all over the world.
Globally, women still face massive inequality. They are the poorest, the most illiterate and, even in developed countries like Australia, don’t have wage parity. Surprisingly, in what could be a boon for women (in the West, at least), they are set to take control of the vast majority of private wealth.
In the Unites States, women now control the majority of private wealth — just — with 51.3 per cent of it in their hands. That’s up from 7.2 per cent in 1860. US research predicts that US $41 trillion will be passed on through inheritances over the next four decades and says 70 per cent of this money will go to women. In Australia, philanthropic groups expect a similar trend.
Helen LaKelly Hunt describes it as the "women’s hour". Speaking with an almost evangelical zeal for philanthropy, she talks frequently about her "awakening". It’s time, she says, for women of wealth to step up and to start giving generously:
"It’s the awe of being able to make a difference. It moves women out of their passive role and into an active role where we have agency, where we can make something happen. Everyone is sad about all the poverty in the world, but now there is something you can do about it."
Helen and her sister Swanee Hunt kicked off the Women Moving Millions campaign in the States with a joint donation of US$10 million. They’ve now raised US$181 million from just 101 donors including two anonymous Australians.
The money is going to women’s foundations that support everything from financial literacy skills for young women in California to teacher training in Afghanistan. For Hunt, this giving is about pursuing social change with a feminist agenda.
"We are not just talking about women writing cheques, we are talking about lifting up the values we want in our culture, to bring about the world that we think is best for the future of our children. It’s about funding our right to thrive, our right to express our values and our right to be part of policy-making bodies that are deciding if and how we go to war.
"Women need to show up on congressional votes as well as men and determine the law along with men and it takes money to shift the institutions of a culture so that women can be visible and vocal."
How will this clarion call for women’s empowerment sit with Australia’s wealthy?
There’s certainly a perception that wealth is associated with social and political conservatism. Do any of the well-heeled of Toorak and Vaucluse really want to spend their money on progressive feminist social change? Indeed, one of Australia’s most generous female philanthropists, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, has made a point of saying she "is not a feminist".
Hunt tells me that she was "thrilled" to see how many conservative women in the US became involved in her campaign. She says that in the past women’s issues have been "pigeon-holed as left-wing … but now people on the left and right see it’s all about creating an agenda for equality and justice".
Still, women of wealth don’t have a great track record for helping out their less well-off sisters — or even for helping themselves. Women have always been generous philanthropists, but they’ve tended to use their dollars to support the status quo, even if it means perpetuating discrimination. Helen LaKelly Hunt says the suffrage movement is a prime example.
"High-net worth women sat on the sidelines while their suffragette sisters petitioned and marched and were dragged to prison and did hunger strikes and were force fed. The working class women were giving their money and their work and their blood, sweat and tears but the high net worth women were funding the ballet and their husband’s alma mater and religious institutions where they had no voice."
To some degree this trend continues today, though, in the last decade, foundations and charities funded by women, for women and children, have grown at a faster rate than the overall foundation sector, suggesting that change is underway.
In some quarters though, the proposition that women’s issues be specifically funded rankles. "You really couldn’t get more provocative" according to an article in The Age. When Swanee Hunt appeared on American television network CNBC recently the male host seemed shocked, not by the fact that she’d just raised US$181 million during a severe economic downturn, but that the money would go to women. "I don’t mean offence", began his first question, "but why women?"
Helen LaKelly Hunt says it’s because funding women is strategic and successful:
"If a man receives funding, the research shows that he will often better himself, period. But if funding goes to a woman in need, for example if you help a woman get an education, she will make sure her children get educated, then she wants her neighbourhood to get educated. If you help a woman, she gets stronger, her family gets stronger, her community gets stronger, and ultimately the world gets stronger."
It’s an observation also made by global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. In 2008 the Goldman Sachs Foundation announced it was spending 100 million dollars on giving 10,000 disadvantaged women around the world a business and management education. The bank said research shows "this kind of investment can have a significant impact on GDP growth. It also suggests that such an investment in women can have a significant multiplier effect that leads not only to increased revenues and more employees for businesses, but also healthier, better-educated families and ultimately more prosperous communities."
A World Bank study has shown that increasing the share of women with a secondary education by just 1 per cent increases annual per capita income by 0.3 per cent.
So while the philanthropic sector is learning the value of including women, when will governments catch up?
In late January all but one woman was excluded from the London Conference on Afghanistan — a key meeting of all major players and governments in the Afghan conflict. One of the most important issues discussed at this conference was the setting up of a fund to attract Taliban fighters over to the Afghani Government side. The fact that women — arguably the half of the population with the most to lose from the Taliban — were not fairly represented at this discussion is short-sighted. Not just because it’s not fair, but because evidence shows the more women are included the better the outcomes.
As Arzo Qanih, the only Afghani woman to address the Conference said "Women in Afghanistan are critical partners for peace. Women’s engagement is not an optional extra component of stabilisation and recovery: it is a critical precursor to success."
Helen LaKelly Hunt believes that money is power and by wielding their money in the right way, women can help buy themselves a seat at the table. As she addresses the launch of the Australian Women Mobilising Millions campaign in Melbourne today, she’ll be trying to convince Australian "women of wealth" that it is worth writing the biggest cheque they may ever have written.
For Hunt, giving away money is a joy: "It’s like after growing up in a desert, that now there is this oasis, this permission to step over old barriers and start thinking of money and start allocating."