FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [Mobile native A.E.S.V. Belmont]
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Belmont, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt (17 Jan. 1853-26 Jan.
1933), social leader and suffragist, was born Alva Erskine Smith
in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of Murray Forbes Smith, a cotton
merchant, and Phoebe Ann Desha. As a child, Alva summered with
her parents in Newport, Rhode Island, and accompanied them on
European vacations. In 1857 the Smiths moved to New York City,
where they settled in Madison Square. Murray Smith later went
to Liverpool, England, to conduct his business, and Alva, her
mother, and her sisters moved to Paris. Alva attended a private
boarding school in Neilly, France, for one year.
After the Civil War, the family returned to New York, where
Phoebe Smith died in 1869. As Murray Smith suffered repeated
losses in his business dealings, his health, too, began to fail.
He died shortly after Alva's marriage to railroad heir William
Kissam Vanderbilt, which took place in Calvary Church in New
York on 20 April 1875. Alva and William had three children; she
arranged the marriage of the eldest, Consuelo, to the English
ninth Duke of Marlborough.
Alva Vanderbilt was noted for her energy, intelligence, strong
opinions, and willingness to challenge convention. After her
marriage, she achieved fame for her conduct as one of the richest
socialites of the Gilded Age. Her renowned fancy-dress ball in
March 1883 drew wide public attention and garnered social acceptance
for the Vanderbilts. Together with Richard Morris Hunt, she was
responsible for the design and construction of some of the period's
landmark architecture and interior design, including three Vanderbilt
mansions: 660 Fifth Avenue in New York, Marble House in Newport,
Rhode Island, and Idlehour at Oakdale, Long Island. Her involvement
in architecture continued to the end of her life and included
renovations to Belcourt Castle in Newport and the fifteenth-century
French Chateau d'Augerville-laRiviere.
In 1895 Alva Vanderbilt successfully sued William for divorce,
an act that was considered scandalous because of her social standing.
On 11 January 1896 she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, the
son of financier August Belmont, in a civil ceremony in New York
City. The marriage was a happy one and lasted until Oliver's death in
In 1909 Alva Belmont attended a lecture by Ida Husted Harper
and embraced the cause of woman suffrage. Although she noted
in her autobiography that the ordeal of her divorce "led up to
[her] own rebellion against the existing order as it affected
women," she also believed that her charity work in hospitals
and settlement houses had influenced her philosophy. In the magazine
World Today (Oct. 1911) she wrote, "Men and women are equal only
when their opportunities for doing good are equal." With the
vote women would be able to enact further social reforms. She
gave strong support to labor in the 1909-1910 New York shirtwaist
makers strike. She paid the bail of picketers who had been arrested
and funded a large rally in the city's Hippodrome, which she
addressed along with Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National
American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1909 she joined
this organization and was named an alternate delegate from New
York to the International Women's Suffrage Association meeting in
There, Belmont observed the militancy of Emmeline Pankhurst
and her followers, who would influence the depth and the form
of her commitment to the cause. On her return, she paid for office
space on Fifth Avenue that allowed the relocation of NAWSA offices
to New York, and she funded its National Press Bureau. At the
same time, she formed her own Political Equality League to seek
broad support for suffrage in neighborhoods throughout the city,
and, as its president, led its division of the 1912 Women's Votes
By this time, organized suffrage activity was centered on educated,
middle-class white women, who were often reluctant to accept
immigrants, blacks, and the working class into their ranks. Belmont's
Political Equality League only partially broke with this tradition.
She established its first "suffrage settlement house" in Harlem,
and she included black women and immigrants in weekend retreats
at Beacon Towers, her Sands Point, Long Island, home. Still,
the Harlem Club women with whom Belmont associated were educated
and successful. She looked down on poor black people and, in
speaking before affluent whites, reiterated racist fears. She
quietly contributed to the Southern Woman Suffrage Conference,
which refused to admit blacks, and a decade later, the National
Woman's Party, which she led, would be tainted by racism.
With the promise of Belmont's support, the Congressional Union
for Woman Suffrage (CU), organized by Alice Paul and Crystal
Eastman, separated from the NAWSA in 1913. Belmont then merged
the Political Equality League into the CU. Now committed to defeating
the incumbent party and securing the passage of the Susan B.
Anthony amendment, Belmont convened a Conference of Great Women
at Marble House in the summer of 1914. The Duchess of Marlborough,
who promoted suffrage and prison reform in England, addressed
the gathering, which was followed by the CU's first national
meeting. Belmont served on the executive committee of the CU
from 1914 to 1916.
In 1915 Belmont chaired the women voters' convention at the
Panama-Pacific Exposition. The following year, she helped to
establish the Woman's Party of voters from twelve suffrage states,
which organized the first picketing ever to take place before
the White House in January 1917. That March, the party merged
with the CU to form the National Woman's Party, which Belmont
served as a member of its executive committee from 1917 to 1920.
She hoped that following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment,
this organization would seek true party status, an idea its members
rejected. Nevertheless they elected her their president, an office
she held until her death. The National Woman's Party continued
to lobby for new initiatives from the Washington, D.C., headquarters
that Belmont had purchased for the group. She paid a salary to
Alice Paul, who worked to defeat protective legislation for women.
Belmont also was committed to furthering women's rights abroad.
By the early 1920s, she lived in France most of the time. With
Paul, she formed the International Advisory Council of the National
Woman's Party and the Auxiliary of American Women abroad.
Belmont suffered a stroke in the spring of 1932 that left her
partially paralyzed, and she died in Paris of bronchial and heart
ailments the following January. A large contingent of suffragists
honored her at her funeral in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in
New York. She was buried next to Oliver Belmont in Woodlawn Cemetery,
Belmont came to the cause of woman suffrage late in her life,
yet she devoted tremendous energy and resources to established
suffrage organizations and to the community on their behalf.
Although she is not described prominently in most histories of
the suffrage movement, she brought vital financial support, publicity,
and most of all bold ideas to her cause.
Alva Belmont employed two women to assist her in writing her
autobiography. Sara Bard Field's research notes and first draft
are in the C. E. S. Wood Collection at the Huntington Library,
San Marino, Calif. A typescript by Matilda Young, written years
later, is in the William R. Perkins Library at Duke University.
Belmont's suffrage papers are in the Jane Norman Smith, Alice
Paul, and Doris Stevens Collections at the Schlesinger Library
at Radcliffe College. See also the National Woman's Party records
in the New York Public Library, and the National Woman's Party
Papers, which have been microfilmed, in the Library of Congress.
Belmont is discussed in oral history interviews with Sara Bard
Field and Alice Paul; these are in the collection of the Suffragists
Oral History Office at the Bancroft Library, University of California
at Berkeley. Belmont is credited with more than a dozen magazine
and newspaper articles on woman suffrage; a bibliography is in
Clarice Stasz, The Vanderbilt Women: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour
and Tragedy (1991). See also Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, eds.,
The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic
Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper (1974); Aileen Kraditor,
The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (1965); and
Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement
in the United States (1959). For contemporary accounts, see Doris
Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (1920); Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story
of the Woman's Party (1921); and Ida Husted Harper, ed., History
of Woman Suffrage, vols. 5 and 6 (1922). Obituaries are in the
New York Times, 26 and 27 Jan. 1933.
Katheryn P. Viens
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Katheryn P. Viens. "Belmont, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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