Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage supported herself by teaching for over 20 years in Syracuse New York. In 1869 at age 41, Olivia Slocum married Russell Sage, a widower, financier and robber baron who was 12 years older than she. They had no children.
Ms. Sage became involved in activities in which her role as his wife defined her. In 1906 Sage died and left his entire fortune of about $70 million to her, which was unrestricted for her use. In his name she used the money for philanthropic purposes. She established the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 and founded the Russell Sage College for women in 1916. Ms. Sage was a former educator and strongly supported education, both with program and building grants to Syracuse and other universities.
Her philosophy included “helping the unfortunate by providing them with a good environment, opportunity for self-support and individual responsibility, and protection from the unscrupulous.” Mrs. Sage donated Constitution Island to the federal government as an addition to West Point Military Academy. Ms. Sage became a patron of E. Lilian Todd (the first woman in the world to design airplanes) after seeing Todd’s first airplane design at an exhibition at Madison Square Gardens in 1906.
Her greatest single gift was $10,000,000 in 1907 to establish the Russell Sage Foundation, which continues to study social issues and recommend solutions. In 1908 she donated $650,000 to Yale University, enabling the purchase of the Hillhouse property for the university’s Science Hill. In 1909, she donated Holder Hall to Princeton University, named after her Quaker ancestor Christopher Holder, persecuted for his religion in colonial Massachusetts. Sage gave $300,000 to Cornell University for the construction of a women’s dormitory, Risley Hall, named after her mother-in-law. Her promotion of women’s education also included funding the construction of the Olivia Josselyn House, named for her grandmother, at the then all-female Vassar College in 1912. That year she also acquired Marsh Island in the Gulf of Mexico and dedicated it as a refuge for birds and other wildlife.
In 1916, Sage founded Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, as a comprehensive college for women. It is located within the historic district of Troy, New York. RSC offers liberal arts and professional degree programs to empower students to become women of influence in their careers and their communities.