Janet Leslie grew up on a family farm in Nebraska, arising early each day to help her dad with chores. Because she had no brothers, her son David says: “She got put to work on the farm with hard labor pretty young. She could do anything. With this unique upbringing, she realized there wasn’t a difference between what men and women can do.”
Frustrated by gender inequities, she threw herself into fighting for equality for women and girls. As Janet’s obituary stated after her death at age 85 this past July, “She was a tireless activist and donor to many women’s rights organizations.” She was passionate about reproductive rights and safety for women and girls.
Recently the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota received a legacy gift established through Janet’s will, the capstone to her financial gifts over nearly three decades to the foundation.
Her first gift to the Women’s Foundation was $100 in 1996. Her support gradually grew to making substantial current operating, campaign, and legacy gifts.
Former Women’s Foundation President & CEO, Lee Roper-Batker says: “Janet’s initial gifts were modest, and they increased with time. She grew more comfortable seeing herself as a philanthropist. As Janet learned more about problems and inequities in society, she shared her resources to make key investments in solutions. She was a strong, vibrant woman with a deep sense of fairness and equality, which was her vision for the world.”
She met her husband, Bob Leslie, at Nebraska Wesleyan University. They married in 1957, a year before she received an education degree. After graduation, Janet and Bob moved to California for teaching jobs at Newport Beach Harbor High School. When Bob changed careers, they moved to the San Francisco Bay area. Janet became a full-time homemaker, raising Steven, David, and Mark.
David says: “My parents moved to the Bay Area at the height of protests and anti-war action out there. She became an activist.” The family moved back to the Midwest when Bob was promoted to regional sales manager for Josten’s. He later became president of the company.
Janet’s devotion to uplifting women and girls intensified after settling in Minnetonka. David remembers when he was young his mom would dial for dollars, on the phone night after night trying to get Joan Growe elected as Minnesota Secretary of State. He says: “Mom got involved in a group of women who were fighting to get females into public office. They called themselves the Minnetonka Mafia. They encouraged women to vote and to support female candidates for office.”
Janet served on the board of the YWCA and was active in Advocates for Human Rights and Planned Parenthood.
Once Janet surprised Lee and a new gift officer by stating—before she was asked —what extremely generous gifts she planned to make to the Women’s Foundation. Lee had told Janet beforehand that she wanted to make a joint call with a new major gifts officer so the staff person could experience asking for a gift. Lee laughs upon recalling: “After our arrival, Janet whips out this yellow legal pad of paper and said, ‘I know you are here to ask for my gift. I will give this amount for the MN Girls Are Not For Sale campaign, I will give this much over five years in annual support, and I will make this six-figure gift in my estate plan to support WFMN.’ Boom. Boom. Boom. It showed her no-nonsense approach, her strength, and her generosity. The clarity of her charitable intention and purposes for giving were unlike anything I had encountered. Imagine how wonderful it was for our new major gifts officer to witness this.”
As a committed donor, Janet joined Lee and other supporters on a Women’s Foundation trip to Africa in 2010 celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the African Women’s Development Fund, a sister organization. In Nairobi, the group met with women who formerly had been sex workers. Through the fund, the women received microgrants so they could buy items like bottled soda to resell in the marketplace at a higher price, thus supporting themselves. Lee said: “We could see the violence of what they had endured. Janet supported the microgrants that helped the women. When the Women’s Foundation later took on the issue of ending sex trafficking in Minnesota, she decided to give a six-figure gift because she had seen women who told her the impact of being prostituted. She wanted to create more equitable outcomes.”
Five years ago, Janet treated her three sons, their spouses, and all of her grandchildren to a trip to Africa so they too could see what she had seen on her trip with the Women’s Foundation. David says: “Beforehand, she hadn’t talked about her support for women in Minnesota and in Africa a lot with us. We were impressed by how much she was doing for so many people. It was very educational and eye-opening for all of us. She has had a profound impact on her grandchildren—they want to focus on making a difference in the world as she did. We all are proud of the difference that my mom made through her gifts of time and money to help level the playing field for girls and women.”
In a note of gratitude to Janet in 2019, Lee reflected on an incredible legacy: “From reproductive rights, to exploring feminism and activism in Africa, to advancing gender and racial equity in Minnesota, you have been an amazing leader, partner, and friend. I have long admired your strength, commitment, and leadership. You inspire others to join and follow you.”
Janet Leslie’s legacy lives on in the memories of those who loved her, and the generations that will continue to benefit from her generosity.
Find out how a bequest leaves a legacy for gender and racial justice. Contact Lizzie King at 612-236-1832 or firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.