Finding Inspiration in the Life of Ellen Browning Scripps

As the College navigates the COVID-19 fallout, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month by finding encouragement in the life of Scripps College’s founder, Ellen Browning Scripps.

By Emily Glory Peters

March plays host to Women’s History Month, affording us a special time to celebrate the brilliance, courage, and collective impact of women. As we grapple with the ever-changing realities caused by COVID-19, we use this moment to reflect on the lives of Scripps women for encouragement and inspiration—finding none more fitting than that of our founder, Ellen Browning Scripps.

The daughter of an immigrant bookbinder-turned-farmer, Ellen Browning Scripps voyaged from England to America as a child, becoming the only one among her 10 siblings to save enough money to pursue higher education. She flourished at Knox College from 1856 to 1859, where she earned a certificate upon graduation. At that time, the institution did not grant baccalaureate degrees to women—an academic inequality that would take decades to correct.

Still, Miss Scripps continued to thrive in the face of discrimination and social upheaval. Graduating from college just as the American Civil War unleashed its fury across the nation, she devoted herself to relief efforts and fundraising. Her following years were spent as a schoolteacher, saving diligently and living frugally to survive the post-war economic downturn.

Relentless ambition and keen business acumen ultimately led to her involvement with her brother’s publishing business, where she began as a proofreader before going on to co-found the nation’s largest newspaper conglomerate. She would become one of the most successful businesspeople—and influential philanthropists—in U.S. history, landing her on the cover of Time magazine in 1926.

Throughout her life, Miss Scripps remained especially devoted to women’s causes. A true humanitarian, she gave quietly and generously to progressive movements that uplifted the lives of girls and women, considering her wealth “a trust for the benefit of humanity.” That devotion to women’s advancement became the highlight of her philanthropic generosity that continues to impact thousands today.

The founding of Scripps College was her final project. By the 1920s, the savvy entrepreneur, whose gender once precluded her from receiving a formal college degree, was now in a position to confer that very achievement on other women. Though she was often self-effacing when describing her influence, others aptly recognized her philanthropy as being driven not by acclaim but by a desire to use her wealth “where it will do the most good—and the least harm.” Scripps College was the manifestation of this desire, equipping thousands of future women to “contribute to society through public and private lives of leadership, service, integrity, and creativity.”

Ellen Browning Scripps’ life was shaped by a mental fortitude and an endless pursuit of knowledge that enabled her to overcome in times of war, gender-based discrimination, and economic depression. As we jointly confront a global crisis, we cherish these values even more, knowing that—with some of her brilliance and courage—we will surmount this challenge to better days ahead.

This Women’s History month, you can help Scripps College continue to deliver on our founder’s vision for the College, even as COVID-19 necessitates a new era of learning. To make a gift to The Scripps Fund or the Student Emergency Fund, please click here.

Interested in learning more? Check out our latest giving and impact news here.