They’ve always been big givers, but for a long time men got most of the credit.

MacKenzie Scott’s donation to Virginia State University, announced in December, is the largest single donor gift in the historically Black college’s history.
MacKenzie Scott’s donation to Virginia State University, announced in December, is the largest single donor gift in the historically Black college’s history.Credit…Evan Agostini/Invision, via Associated Press

By Valeriya Safronova

  • Jan. 30, 2021

When MacKenzie Scott revealed in December that she had donated $4.2 billion of her fortune in the preceding four months — on top of the $1.7 billion she had given away earlier in 2020 — the internet exploded with praise.

That and a dash of side-eye toward her ex-husband, Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, who appeared in the news in 2020 in articles about employee walkouts at Amazon, complaints about worker safety and criticism of the company’s environmental impact. (Those bringing the final charge were only partly mollified by the $10 billion initiative Mr. Bezos established to fight climate change last February).

Philanthropy watchers lauded Ms. Scott’s speed, the research she put into her decisions, the no-strings-attached messaging that accompanied her gifts, and the wide scope of her chosen beneficiaries, which included historically Black colleges and universities, community colleges, and Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. organizations.

Others saw something of a post-divorce glow-up in the philanthropic acts of the novelist formerly known as Ms. Bezos.

An article in Vanity Fair argued that Ms. Scott “got even” with Mr. Bezos after his long-term affair with another woman became very public “by doing what he does not: sharing his unbelievable, unconscionable, indescribable wealth with those he makes his money off of, i.e. everyone else in the world.”

“Not since Jennifer Aniston has a wronged woman done so much right,” wrote a New York Post columnist in an opinion piece that contrasted Ms. Scott’s charity with what some see as the close-handedness of Mr. Bezos, whose wealth grew by an estimated 63 percent during the first nine months of the pandemic.

Ms. Scott’s donations followed her signing of the Giving Pledge in 2019, which she did less than two months after announcing on Twitter that her divorce from Mr. Bezos was finalized. Signatories of the pledge promise to distribute half of their wealth during their lifetime or in their will, a commitment Ms. Scott’s ex-husband has very noticeably not made.

Though the example of Ms. Scott is exceptional in many ways, she is among an emerging group of female philanthropists, some of whose fortunes are tied to their husbands, who are assuming more prominence in public life. 

Wealthy women giving their money and time away is nothing new(see: Brooke AstorNan KempnerLiz Thompson and Agnes Gund). But for many decades, those who were married did so in their husbands’ names, or more quietly, without wide recognition. A study published in 1985 that followed 70 female volunteers in “high society” for several years found that the unpaid work the women did was often unrecognized or belittled.

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