How to elevate female role models in your family story

Personal legacy planningHow to elevate female role models in your family story

February 23, 2021

Key things to know

  • Traditionally, the impact of women in their family’s legacy may be understated or forgotten.

  • Identifying and elevating your family’s female narrative is important to rounding out your family’s legacy story.

  • Documenting these stories can help guide your family’s financial decisions.

You’ve probably heard of Andrew Carnegie. You may associate the name with Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Corporation or for his enduring legacy across a broad range of philanthropic causes, rather than for his career in the steel industry.

You may not have heard of Louise Whitfield Carnegie, Andrew Carnegie’s wife. Carnegie’s lauded legacy was the brainchild of Louise. Among other things, she cultivated his interests in art and music, was largely responsible for founding what is now the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, served on the board of the Carnegie Corporation after her husband’s death and was active in what is currently the United Nations. Read more about the impact of Louise Carnegie’s legacy.

Despite this influence, leadership and activism, Louise Carnegie’s occupation was listed in the census as “none.” She described herself as the “unknown wife of a somewhat well-known businessman.” Louise Carnegie was a Victorian. Even as she defied norms through her actions, she fulfilled cultural expectations of women as wives and mothers.

A legacy of this worldview is that women have long undervalued their own contributions to society, and the historical record has largely silenced and overlooked them. Most women on the family trees of the wealthiest families are reduced to little more than vital statistics.

Finding, sharing and elevating your family stories

As women take control of more wealth and decisions around that wealth, they are also increasingly investing in women, women’s issues, and women’s enterprises. They look to and for female role models and thought leaders for inspiration and guidance. They need not look far, however. One way or another, generations of women in their own family have paved the way to this point in history, and they provide a unique foundation for each woman to stand upon as she builds her own legacy.

Oral history can be a fun, efficient and effective way to record the stories of the women in your family and preserve them for current and future generations. Perhaps the women are wealth creators, which usually makes for a good tale, but they need not be. Stories of the unsung heroes can point to the myriad ways that your family culture has developed over time, the values that define it regardless of financial wealth, and the impact individuals can have on communities large and small.

Here are a few tips for preparing and conducting interviews to raise the profile of women in your family.

  • Build out the family tree. Start with what you know and ask other family members or use online resources to help fill in the gaps.
  • Familiarize yourself with past events. The eras of previous generations and major trends and events (social, political, economic, cultural, etc.) in those eras helped shaped the lives of the women you are interviewing. If you don’t have interest in doing extensive research, try to jot down the major events and trends, even by searching “important people, places events in [name your place] 1950s.”
  • Develop and refine the list of interviewees. Interview as many women as you like but try and capture the stories of the oldest women in your family, as they retain the deepest institutional memory of the family.
  • Record the interviews. It can be as simple as using your phone to record your conversation. If you’ll be recording in person, a simple recorder and microphone is also an option. Find a quiet place to record where the interviewee will be comfortable.
  • Encourage conversation. Use photographs and other family memorabilia to help jog memories. Ask open-ended questions and then just listen. Try not to interrupt and try not to express opinions. Jot down notes and ask follow-up questions as needed.
  • Select your topics. Here are some themes you might touch on:
    • Life stages (childhood, adolescence, college/young adulthood, marriage, motherhood, empty nest, retirement)
    • People
    • Values and traditions
    • Major events/eras (Great Depression, World War II, natural disasters)
    • Education
    • Paid work/career
    • Volunteering/charitable activities/philanthropy
    • Travel
    • Struggles and triumphs
    • Fun
    • Hopes and dreams – for self, how they panned out, for future generations

Generations of women have paved the way to this point in history, and they provide a unique foundation for each woman to stand upon as she builds her own legacy.

Maximize your stories’ values

Once you’ve recorded the stories of the women in your family, put them to work. Perhaps the stories can guide financial decisions for individuals or families – businesses to start, investments to make, philanthropic causes to support.

Multi-generational wealth depends upon more than financial transactions. A shared sense of identity and values is essential, and the stories of the women in your family are no less valuable in shedding light on these themes than those of the men. In contrast to the fate of Louise Carnegie, let the women in your family voices be heard.

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PERSONAL LEGACY PLANNING

Considerations for family legacy planning

These steps can help you create a legacy plan that both reflects your values and incorporates tax-efficient ways to transfer your assets.

PERSONAL LEGACY PLANNING

Bridging the gap between values and generational family wealth

The best place to start engaging and educating family members of all ages and attitudes toward money is with what matters most: values.

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