DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)—“There is no such thing as a lesser person.” That is the motto of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University, and something I innately knew from birth.

When I was young, I wanted to drive a moped, but was told I couldn’t “because I was a girl.” I did not understand this. When I was a few years older, I was asked to train for the Olympics in swimming, but my mother’s response was, “Why would you want green hair and big shoulders?” I didn’t understand that either.

Then at the elite girls’ school I attended in Dallas, my hometown, the message changed. I was taught that I could accomplish anything any man could. I was not to consider myself “lesser” in any regard, and definitely not because of my gender.

That sounded and felt great. I knew I had much potential and I wanted to experience all life had to offer, so I embraced this new message. But as I engaged in the larger world, it seemed, for a while, that the old “you can’t, you’re a girl” messages came roaring back.

When I got married, for instance, I wanted to keep my last name, as many other women across the country were doing at the time. We were all rejecting a custom that linked us back to a time when wives were the possessions of husbands, just like cattle and land.

But I got a lot of pushback. Institutions questioned forms where I both checked the married box but did not have the same last name as my husband. Friends and acquaintances introduced me with my husband’s last name on the presumption I had changed it.

I was living in Texas, which culturally seemed to be denying the realities of the women’s movement. An exception of course was Vivian Castleberry, the first female editor at the Dallas Times Herald and a Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century awardee in 2009, who wrote about domestic violence and gender-based work inequities at a time when this was unheard of. Another exception was Louise Raggio, the first female prosecutor in Dallas County, Texas, who radically changed the property rights for women in the state. But outside of a few champions like them, the 1960s mainstream society of Texas was doing its best to stick to old customs.

Fighting Boundaries

I fought these boundaries for years, in the only way I knew how, through my financial independence and my determination to make my own decisions. This felt to be a never-ending battle.

Then, as I matured, during my 40s in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I noticed things in Texas starting to change. Gender issues began to crop up in our public discourse as women began speaking more freely about wanting a fuller breadth of opportunity. Somehow, Gloria Steinem and second-wave feminism was finding its way into the Lone Star State.

At that point, Texan women began to join the conversation in the wider U.S. women’s movement, which was shifting from a focus on providing social services for women to addressing such problems as the feminization of poverty and the violence that women face.

These discussions were about how to dismantle the cultural and economic structures that limit women’s prosperity. Advocates began to gather statistics to support the case that when women are empowered, when we have work and business opportunities, the whole community benefits and thrives.

This discourse rekindled my own personal quest for gender equity. And that led me to philanthropy.

In 2004 my father, a successful Dallas real estate developer, established a family foundation. He died shortly after, in 2005, and left my sister Gayle and me the opportunity to translate our emerging ideas for social change into action.

Our first step was to create and fund the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University, established in 2006. Today it is one of only seven programs at colleges across the country to grant a bachelor’s degree in human rights education and the only one in the South.

This initial success led me to ask: What would my direction and influence as a woman in philanthropy be?

Dallas Women’s Foundation

Part of that answer emerged when the Dallas Women’s Foundation came to our family foundation with a grant proposal in 2008.

The foundation, established in the 1980s, had created a strong model for a cross-class, cross-race alliance between women with financial wealth and women with a wealth of knowledge on solving problems in their communities.

Today, for instance, it supports the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, which, among other things, runs the only family-violence shelter in Texas to address the specific language, faith, diet, social and legal needs of Muslim women.

And in 2010, the Dallas Women’s Foundation provided a capital grant to help a public-private partnership build a residential treatment facility that provided gender-specific counseling and educational services tailored to the unique psychological and logistical needs of those at risk for being trafficked, young survivors of trafficking and their families. I was a co-chair for that campaign.

The Dallas Women’s Foundation’s request was for $250,000.  It didn’t seem enough.

By then I had become deeply inspired by the Women Moving Millions campaign, started in 2007, emphasizing “living giving” and encouraging women of wealth to give “big and bold.”

By then the Great Recession of 2008 was also knocking the nation’s economy around and causing a recession in the philanthropic sector.

I did not understand why giving was going backwards at a time when suffering was increasing. I proposed to our board that we embrace the motto of Women Moving Millions, but with the important tag word “now.” And that is what our foundation did, we embraced the mantra, “Give: Big and Bold…Now.”

With the support of my board, I advised the Dallas Women’s Foundation that we would not be making a gift of $250,000.  Instead our gift—our investment in bettering the lives of women and girls—would be $1 million and we would become a part of Women Moving Millions.

That began a significant increase in our level of giving, which has carried through to today.

Through our initial gift I got connected to the broader community of people investing in women and girls. That helped me realize how badly this sector needs money. My initial $1 million investment in the Dallas Women’s Foundation continued and by now we have given over $12 million to projects that support women and girls.

Greater Investments

Our foundation has served as executive producer for “Playground,” a documentary about the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the United States.

We are active in changing the way women are treated when they run for office. A huge double standard, sexist news coverage was creating barriers to women’s leadership in government. So, with the Women’s Media Center and the Women’s Campaign Fund, we created Name It. Change It., a rapid-response mechanism to call out sexism in political campaigns. The longstanding sexism that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, has withstood for decades is finally being called out and lampooned on national television. This is a powerful testament that the reach of Name It. Change It. now extends beyond the political realm and into mainstream culture.

I wanted to help balance out the scale. I wanted to be a role model for others. I knew the opportunity existed to make a difference for women. I was committed, through my own life experience that developed into my passion for helping women, to contribute more, to infuse initiatives that were providing services and education, building awareness of our needs.

Girls and women everywhere are a critical pathway to change. That is my conviction. But they need more resources. And when I say resources I mean all resources: human, capital and knowledge. It is important to not only invest dollars in the programs and organizations with which you are involved, but to also come at it as a partner with deep involvement, true listening and total commitment.

Philanthropic giving has become the single most expansive force of my adult life. My education as a donor—not just learning about social change, but helping to drive it—opened up my world in ways I never imagined.

Somewhere along the path of my life as a philanthropist, I also became an activist and hit my stride, enjoying the ability now to advocate for the issues I believe in. From the “girls don’t” restrictions of my childhood, I have found my way into the larger world.

Over the last decade I have seen the needle move. Hillary Clinton is a great example of that. We finally have our first female nominee by a major party for president. I think that says it all. That could never have happened without women’s special understanding of collaboration; and our desire to make change. We are well on our way.