Suffragist of the Month – January, 2017

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, 1853 – 1933

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was unarguably the most outspoken and controversial advocate for suffrage that the cause itself had ever seen. Some liked her; most respected her; many loathed and avoided her at all cost. But Alva
was fearless and loyal, and was not afraid to spend enormous sums of her own money to right what she considered an egregious wrong to all women – denial of the right to vote.

Alva Erskine Smith was born January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama, seventh of nine children of cotton merchant, Murray Forbes Smith, and his wife, Phoebe Ann Desha. The family was prosperous, though not wealthy. A few years before the Civil War they moved to New York, where they entered briefly into New York society, to Europe, and then back to New York in 1869.

In 1875 she married William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American industrialist who had made his fortune in shipping and railroads. The couple had three children, but the marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1895, one of the first divorces of their social class. Alva received an enormous settlement – close to $2.3 million dollars, an income of $100,000 a year, some valuable real estate, and sole custody of their three children. On January 11, 1896 she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, grandson of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry who had commanded the naval expedition that opened diplomatic relations with Japan in 1854. But Alva’s newly found marital happiness was not to last; Oliver died suddenly of complications from an appendectomy in 1908, leaving her his entire fortune.

For the first time in her life Alva was completely alone. Her children were grown and no longer needed her. She was one of the richest women in America, but felt bereft and depressed. She decided to devote her enormous energies and much of her great fortune to the woman suffrage movement. Characteristically, she jumped into the movement with full force. She purchased a building at 505 Fifth Avenue and convinced NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association) to move their headquarters there from Warren Ohio. Sensing the importance of publicity, she established and funded a press bureau in the building to take advantage of New York’s central location of the nation’s most influential newspapers and magazines.

She established her own organization, The Political Equality Association, and proclaimed herself President. The Political Equality Association rented eleven sites throughout New York City where young workingwomen could learn about suffrage, attend lectures and join discussion groups. In a controversial move that angered many of the old guard suffragists, she also established a center in Harlem to offer the same amenities to African-American women who might feel excluded from the mainstream movement.

 By 1912 Alva was ready to join her voice with those who believed that the American woman suffrage movement needed to be more forceful to achieve its goal. On a visit to her daughter Consuela in England, she became acquainted with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, and although she did not entirely approve of their militant tactics, she was convinced the time had come for a more active course. In 1913, to the dismay of NAWSA leaders, she invited Emmeline Pankhurst to visit the United States and sponsored Ms. Pankhurst on a speaking tour.

While Alva was trying to convince NAWSA to change their course and become more politically dynamic, a young Quaker woman, Alice Paul was trying to do the same. Instead of attempting to achieve suffrage on a state-by-state basis, Paul believed the only sensible course should be to concentrate  on the passage of an amendment to the US Constitution. When Alva heard of Alice Paul’s work she was immediately interested.

In January of 1917 when Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party began picketing the White House Alva immediately sent a check for $5000. During the first few months the pickets attracted mild, if amused attention from the public and President Wilson. But later that year, after the United States entered World War I, the situation turned ugly. The pickets were arrested, accused of treasonous behavior, imprisoned and subjected to degradation and torture. Although Alva never physically joined the pickets she supported them in every way she could, providing funds, circulating petitions, and bringing pressure on members of Congress to pass the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Finally, in 1920, after years of struggle, the Amendment was ratified by the necessary thirty-six states, and woman suffrage became the law of the land.

In 1921 Alva was elected President of the National Woman’s Party, a position she would hold for the rest of her life. Using $146,000 of her own funds, she purchased a house in Washington DC for its headquarters (which later moved to a mansion across the street on Constitution Avenue). In April 2016 President Obama designated the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.

Alva would continue to lobby for women’s equality for the rest of her life. She spent much of that time in France, where she had been so happy as a young girl. She died there in 1933 and is buried next to Oliver in Woodlawn Cemetery in Queens, New York. (Photo of mausoleum, above, right). Typical of Alva, she left strict instructions regarding her funeral. There were to be only female pallbearers, and her coffin was to be draped with a banner proclaiming Susan B. Anthony’s motto, “Failure is Impossible.”

On her forty-ninth birthday Oliver Belmont presented Alva with a statue of Joan of Arc, whose fiery, determined personality Alva had always  identified with. Perhaps this connection wasn’t too far off the mark. Both were ahead of their time, both were determined and strong willed, and both made lasting impressions on society that the world would not soon forget.

Happy Birthday, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont!



2 Responses

  1. Natalie Fitterman January 3, 2017 at 9:39 pm | | Reply

    Is anyone available to come to Centereach High School during Women’s History Month and speaking with my club? I’m trying to get a hold of you, but I don’t see any emails on the website or any phone numbers.

    Please contact me.

    I appreciate your help here. I want to educate the students on this.

  2. Lisa Scott January 4, 2017 at 9:24 am | | Reply

    Has anyone considered reviving the play Suffrage and Courage that Sal St. George did several years ago on Alva? I’ve been in touch with him on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, and was thinking about writing a grant proposal to have it re-staged. He’s willing to modify it if we want to include other prominent LI/NY suffragists. But we’d prefer to do this with partners. Email me for more details on the play, etc.

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