August 23 marks the 104th anniversary of the gala open-house held at Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, home of prominent and wealthy suffragist, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. (photo below). It was one of the first open-air meetings promoting suffrage to be held in the staid, conservative community. The New York Times reported that the featured speaker would be Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and it was rumored that Alva Belmont would make a speech as well.
To listen to the lectures and visit the gardens cost a modest one-dollar, but those who wanted to tour the majestic Beaux-Arts mansion, and view the impressive yellow marble staircase had to pay $5, no small change in 1909. It seems the fee didn’t seem to inhibit many, however, as over six hundred (mostly) women descended on Alva’s grand estate the next day, listened to the pro-suffrage speakers, and peeked into the world of privilege and luxury that surrounded one of the woman suffrage movement’s most ardent supporters.
Of course, some of the older, more conservative residents of Newport thought such gatherings a bit gauche – especially when engineered by one of their most prominent residents. Alva continued to exasperate them with her demands for support for the woman suffrage movement, and had obviously crossed the line with this strident, openly political demonstration held right in their own backyards. Still, they bought their tickets and stood in line, modestly turning their heads when the newspaper photographers snapped photos, thus insuring that their hypocrisy would not be spread across the next day’s morning newspaper.
Today, long after the battle for woman suffrage has been won, and the fluttering blue suffrage flag with its four white stars has disappeared from its front façade, Marble House is still celebrated as one of Newport’s most beautiful and fascinating mansions. Look for Alva Belmont’s intriguing story in Chapter One of my book, Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement, and learn more about the house and its famous occupant at www.newportmansions.org/explore/marblehouse.
Alva Belmont photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.