“Pray to God. She will help you.” —Alva Belmont
Born this day in 1853: Alva Belmont (1853–1933), socialite turned suffragist and social reformer who used her vast fortune to support the vote for women and other causes
Alva Belmont was born Alva Erskine Smith in Mobile, Alabama. In the 1870s she moved to New York City and married William Kissam Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius) and proceeded to elbow, if not bulldoze, her way into New York society (not even the Vanderbilts were good enough for the Astors, you see). She designed a lavish home on Fifth Avenue and an even more ostentatious mansion (a cottage, she called it) in Newport, R.I. After spending more than $12 million dollars climbing to the top of the social ladder she was knocked back down a few rungs when she divorced her philandering husband in 1895. The following year she married wealthy banker Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.
Belmont’s husband died in 1908, and seemingly overnight Belmont became a suffragist and social reformer. With the same zeal she demonstrated trying to penetrate New York society, Belmont hurled herself into the women’s movement. And she opened her wallet just as readily. Belmont threw her lot in with the more militant wing of the movement. She worked closely with ALICE PAUL and held offices in the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party. She also founded and funded the Political Equality League. She paid for the headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and bought a mansion to house the National Woman’s Party, opened up her Newport “cottage” for feminist meetings, funded press bureaus, conferences, and even a socialist magazine (Max Eastman’s The Masses). She supported the Women’s Trade Union League, housing for poor women, hospitals, churches, and more. She led a huge suffrage parade down Fifth Avenue in 1912 and even co-wrote a suffrage-themed opera.
After passage of the 19th Amendment Belmont took up her old hobby, architecture. She made a name for herself in this arena, too, and was one of the first women elected to the American Institute of Architects.
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