Excerpt from Phoebe Apperson Hearst

The following is an excerpt from Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life of Power and Politics (Bison Books, May 2018) by Alexandra M. Nickliss. 

From the Introduction:

Hearst’s story demonstrates the real and intricate interrelationship between power and politics in the lives of both women and men. Hearst spent a good portion of her adult life actively involved in what men called “philanthropy,” or “service,” or in a few cases, “disorderly conduct,” but which was really “politics”; and the worlds of voluntary associations and academia became important political arenas for her. Her life encourages us to think more about a complex and nuanced understanding of many, but not all, forms of power—ideological, rhetorical, social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and symbolic—that Hearst and others exercised in American politics broadly conceived.

Recent scholarly and popular interest in wealthy Americans controlling and spending money and resources on political causes of personal and shared interest with other women and men can be traced back to wealthy women like Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Industrial tycoons captured the attention of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Americans. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his son, William K. Vanderbilt, and John Hopkins, among others, built reputations as well-known philanthropists. Rich women like Hearst, who married into wealth or inherited fortunes, also fascinated Americans. These rich women built distinguished reputations as well-known philanthropists. But few Americans, especially men, acknowledged and recognized their power.

Hearst entered American politics while the field of philanthropy was going through a transition between 1873 and 1893. Pauperism emerged as a great problem during the depression following the Panic of 1873. Dedicated reformers charged that many of the gifts to the needy were “wasted on imposters”—people undeserving of the money. On the other hand, reformers argued that the money received by the deserving poor “tended to degrade rather than to elevate them.” Alarmed by the increased amounts of money and taxation being collected “for public relief,” they castigated private as well as public charity relief workers and groups of both sexes for wasting money on the undeserving poor. To address the problem, devoted reformers interested in efficient and effective giving argued for rigorous professional standards and scientific principles “to make philanthropy a science.” The influential forces of industrialism, immigration, and urbanism shaped Hearst’s philanthropic decisions during the formative years of developing her abilities to donate and skillfully use her money and resources. Hearst’s choices about how to spend her money and resources provided opportunities for her and other women and men to reshape American society and the nation-state.

Hearst’s life of power and politics was shaped in part by her parents’ belief in white superiority. While Randolph and Drusilla Whitmire Apper- son instilled in her the acceptance of a life constrained by sex and class, they inculcated in their first child ambition and the drive to challenge traditional beliefs and constraints as well. This varied array of traits, beliefs, and principles inherited from her parents set the stage for Hearst to grow into a mature, though complicated woman of great importance. As well, the Appersons steeped their eldest child in the values and ideals of Cumberland Presbyterianism. The Cumberlands were an evangelical, radical reform wing of the Presbyterian Church. Randolph and Drusilla Apperson taught their daughter the power of moral authority and to do her religious “duty in all things,” as Hearst explained when she was in her early twenties. She knew she was to marry and have children. But the Appersons also impressed upon her the importance of making something of herself. She learned from her parents that women’s work was valuable and as important as men’s. By the time she was a young woman, her parents’ lessons pushed her to fulfill a need to find a useful role in life with meaning and purpose beyond the traditional domestic role.21 To this end, she sought to advance herself by also helping those she considered less fortunate—including white, black, poor, and immigrant women and men—to advance themselves.

Phoebe Apperson Hearst showed signs, early in life, of her ability to make strategic decisions to satisfy her ambition and fulfill her ardent desire to rise in the world at the same time that she met American expectations about white womanhood. One of the first signs of her ambition emerged when she accepted George Hearst’s marriage proposal, though Phoebe became disillusioned with her marriage not long after she wed George. Unhappy in her twenties, she thought having children would reduce her disenchantment. Her religious values, meantime, kept her from spending most of her hus- band’s money frivolously, especially on fancy parties and fashions, like many women married to rich men. While a young woman, she refused to set out to amass power with her husband’s money to satisfy herself, even though she was ambitious. Instead, she did her duty. She bore a child, behaved within the bounds of propriety, and remained dignified. But she was fortunate enough to be married to a rich man who gave her the opportunity to seek, through travel, a separate, independent identity from him with meaning and purpose. She discovered, moving from place to place in Europe, that she could use George Hearst’s money in useful ways to help her find a place in the world by improving the lives of others, especially the poor.


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