The woman suffrage movement came alive for a few days last week when my husband and I visited Newport Rhode Island, summer home of prominent suffragist Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva’s opulent Beaux Art mansion, Marble House, was built for her as a 39th birthday present by her first husband, Willie K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and is said to have cost 11 million dollars. After their divorce in 1895 Alva received the “cottage” as part of her settlement, along with homes on Long Island and in Manhattan. When she later became interested in the woman suffrage movement she opened Marble House to tours, charging $5 for visitors to enter the house and ascend the grand marble staircase. Others could pay $1 to roam the grounds, and view the Tea House that Alva had imported from China in 1914, all for a good cause.
Marble House today is wonderfully preserved and still grand; the yellow Italian marble of the staircase is just as warm and beautiful as it was when it was built over one hundred twenty years ago. And if you listen very carefully you might just hear the whisper of long skirts as they fly up and down the marble stairs, or the chatter of women’s voices as they view the opulence and grandeur of the age.
There are dozens of other grand and impressive “cottages” in Newport, and no shortage of things to do. A rocky cliff walk meanders along the back of the estates, and a picturesque ocean drive offers stunning views of the rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean. But for me visiting Marble House was the pinnacle of the tour, offering tangible evidence and affirmation of one woman’s determination to secure political equality for everyone. Such determination, sometimes coupled with a love of beauty, never goes out of style.