Margaret Olivia Sage Pays It Forward

Portrait of Margaret Olivia Sage

Portrait of Margaret Olivia Sage

Margaret Olivia Sage was the widow of Russell Sage, a powerful Wall Street investor, congressman and businessman of the 19th century. When the 89-year-old financier died in 1906, he instantly made her one of the wealthiest women in the country. Though he was known as somewhat of a grinch, she used her inheritance to become one of the nation’s most notable philanthropists. A patroness of higher education for women and a leading figure in social change, Sage believed that the upper class had an obligation to give.

With her background of school teacher and financially struggling governess, Sage’s marriage, at the spinster age of 41, made her an instant millionaire – with the memory of being poor. It was because of this history that she remained stalwart in her philanthropy.

During the period in which her family had funds, Margaret  was able to attend Troy Female Seminary, the first institution of higher learning for women. Her introduction to the school’s founder, Emma Willard, would shape her life thereafter. The Troy school, under Willard, produced great female cultural leaders who championed women’s causes beyond the seminary. Margaret Olivia Sage was one such woman.

After her graduation in 1847, her family’s financial luck waned, causing her to spend the next two decades with meager finances.

In 1869, millionaire Russell Sage made her an offer of marriage. He was a ruthless businessman who had swindled her father 20 years before; yet, Margaret married Sage. Her married life was financially rewarding, but she was not allowed involved in philanthropy, as Russell Sage was a known miser.

When Russell Sage died in 1906, he left $75 million to his wife, a sum she proceeded to give away to charities (in the sum of $45 million) until her death.

Margaret Olivia Sage, most remembered for founding the Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment, endowed $10 million to the foundation in 1907.  The Russell Sage Foundation increased the curriculum of social sciences in educational foundations.

When Olivia Sage died in 1918, a total of 19 educational institutions received equal allotments of approximately $800,000. From her inheritance to her death in 1918, Margaret Olivia Sage honored the belief that people with money should devote their time in helping those who work hard for theirs.


Written by

Elizabeth Creekmore is a philanthropist, humanitarian, mother and Southern culture enthusiast located in Jackson, Mississippi.