Written by Ina R. Bort
Recently acquired by the New-York Historical Society, this small plate adorned with the “Votes for Women” slogan is linked to Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a notable New Yorker whose fascinating, improbable life trajectory began as a society doyenne and ended as suffrage activist.
This, the first of three posts, explores perhaps the most alluring strand of Alva’s personality: her uncommon gift of attracting public attention. In follow-up posts, we probe the circumstances where the plate might have been used, each of which illuminates discrete aspects of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. One, a suffrage conference at Alva’s Newport estate, and the other, a lunchroom at her Political Equality Association offices – both tremendous public relations successes – are direct outgrowths of the public persona Alva strove to present: a woman firmly at home in the highest social stratum but who insisted on being there on her terms, terms that gave free rein to her independent spirit.
Born in Alabama in 1853, Alva’s charmed early life was largely spent amidst the glitterati of New York City and Paris. But in her teens, her mother died unexpectedly and her father’s business sharply declined. By the time Alva’s father died in 1875, the family was in dire financial straits. Fortunately, Alva had, by then, met and married William Kissam Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson. On becoming Mrs. Vanderbilt, Alva seized the reins of shaping her public image.
Minimal press coverage of her wedding disappointed, but motivated, Alva. She resolved to cultivate a productive relationship with journalists to ensure her new family’s place in society’s highest echelons, and she did. Alva innately understood that social success required visibility, and she had, as trusty helpers, the burgeoning newspaper industry and increasingly common use of photography.
A 1,200-guest costume ball hosted as a new bride (the subject of enormous press coverage) was her first major foray into image-shaping. And she spent the next 40 years planning events and activities that she knew would attract the attention of journalists—and the public.
During her marriage, Alva immersed herself in architecture and interior design. She played a major role in designing the family’s homes in New York and worked with renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design Marble House in Newport—a well-publicized project that spared no expense.
The couple had three children but their marriage disintegrated, primarily due to William’s philandering, to which Alva responded with a divorce filing—a scandalous gesture that even her own lawyer tried to deter. New York society ladies were predictably horrified. Rather than cower before their stinging barbs, Alva defiantly chastised them as the unhappy, hypocritical wives she perceived them to be. She chided them for their resigned acceptance of their husbands’ overt extramarital affairs, a price they were expected to pay for their coddled lives.
After the divorce, Alva arranged her daughter’s marriage to the Duke of Marlborough—a herculean effort driven by her own desire to re-ascend society’s apex while ensuring her daughter’s future. Alva’s own wedding, her second, soon followed, when she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1896. Unlike her first wedding, this one was national news, thanks to her mastery of public relations in the interim. She spent 12 happy years as Belmont’s wife, until he died in 1908.
After Belmont’s death, Alva was devastated, alienated and eager to start a new chapter. Her interest in social and political reform and activism—inspired by her daughter’s reform work in England and a close friend’s joining the U.S. suffragist cause—prompted Alva to attend her first suffrage meetings around 1908-09. Initially enamored with the discussions and a member of NAWSA (an organization created from the National Women’s Suffrage Association and American Women’s Suffrage Association) by 1909, Alva soon doubted the movement’s efficacy. To her, their meetings were mere occasions for speakers to preach to the already converted.
April 1909 was a turning point. At the International Suffrage Alliance convention in London, she witnessed militant suffragists in action. Their strategy was built on shocking—thus newsworthy—behavior. Their passionate rallies, demonstrations, and public derision of unsympathetic politicians were powerful media magnets.
These tactics captivated Alva, as did the militants’ savvy integration of their political agenda and entrepreneurial spirit. They ran shops selling suffrage merchandise like jewelry, soap, and, most relevant here, china. Brisk sales inspired high-end shopkeepers to add suffrage merchandise to their own inventory. Alva took careful note of this brilliant political, and commercial, marketing strategy. She would later ascribe her attraction to the militants to her own rebellious spirit, but it might also have been fueled by Alva’s admiration and understanding of their ability to attract public attention.
On return to the U.S., Alva embarked on her new career as a suffrage movement publicist. Using this “Votes for Women” plate as our guide, we will follow her journey in our next two posts.
Sources: Sylvia D. Hoffert, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights (Indiana University Press, 2012); Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt (HarperCollins, 2005); Maureen E. Montgomery, Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton’s New York (Routledge, 1998).