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Alva Vanderbilt Belmont

Unlikely Champion of Women's Rights

Sylvia D. Hoffert

Publication Year: 2011

A New York socialite and feminist, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was known to be domineering, temperamental, and opinionated. Her resolve to get her own way regardless of the consequences stood her in good stead when she joined the American woman suffrage movement in 1909. Thereafter, she used her wealth, her administrative expertise, and her social celebrity to help convince Congress to pass the 19th Amendment and then to persuade the exhausted leaders of the National Woman's Party to initiate a world wide equal rights campaign. Sylvia D. Hoffert argues that Belmont was a feminist visionary and that her financial support was crucial to the success of the suffrage and equal rights movements. She also shows how Belmont's activism, and the money she used to support it, enriches our understanding of the personal dynamics of the American woman's rights movement. Her analysis of Belmont's memoirs illustrates how Belmont went about the complex and collaborative process of creating her public self.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title page, Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

It is a pleasure to than k those without whose help this book would never have been written and published. Like feminist reform movements, no book project can flourish without financial support. I would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at the University...

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pp. ix-xvi

Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, a wealthy New York socialite and militant woman’s rights advocate, was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1853. But it took a lifetime for her to become what she was. The process of self-making that she engaged in was a complex and collaborative one that took place in constantly changing contexts. The stories she told about herself reflected that reality. As literary scholar John Paul Eakin has pointed...

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1. An Impossible Child

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pp. 1-19

Alva described herself as “an impossible child” when she dictated her memoir to her private secretary, Sara Bard Field, in the summer of 1917.1 Some fifteen years later, she claimed that she “was probably the worst child that ever lived” in yet another attempt to tell the story of her life.2 Those who wish to leave a portrait of themselves for posterity are not usually so self-critical, but there was nothing typical about Alva. Given the evidence she provided to illustrate her...

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2. Every Inch a General (Including Images)

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pp. 21-69

Becoming a Vanderbilt provided Alva the opportunity to engage both literally and figuratively in a wide variety of construction projects. The most tangible of them were the houses that the fortune she now had access to made it possible for her to build on Long Island, in New York City, and in Newport, Rhode Island.1 But she also defined motherhood as a kind of “constructive work” that demanded that she...

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3. A Sex Battle

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pp. 71-107

During her days as a Vanderbilt, Alva engaged in the conventional sorts of philanthropy: founding a home for ill and convalescent children and supervising the building of an Episcopalian church near her home on Long Island. But she never expressed any interest in social reform or political activism.1 When she returned from Europe in 1909 after the death of her husband, however, she found her...

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4. Immortalizing the Lady in Affecting Prose

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pp. 109-139

While Alice Paul and her militant compatriots were picketing the White House, going to jail, and refusing to eat during the summer of 1917, Alva could be found sitting within earshot of the Atlantic Ocean, drinking lemonade in her Chinese pagoda in the sweltering heat of the Newport summer, and dictating her memoir to a young, socialist, anti-war activist named Sara Bard Field. They spent almost...

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5. Belmont’s Orphan Child

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pp. 141-174

After her summer with Field was over, Alva returned to New York. From there she continued to offer the CU, now known as the National Woman’s Party (NWP), both money and moral support.1 Paul credited Alva for the name change. Mrs. Belmont preferred it, she said, and since she was providing them with operating funds and no one objected, it was an easy way to keep her happy and involved. The effort...

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6. The Last Word

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pp. 175-192

As she approached the age of eighty, Alva continued to be concerned about her image and legacy. Neither of her previous efforts at dictating a memoir seems to have satisfied her. So sometime between 1928 and 1932, she repeated the process once more by sharing her life story with her then secretary and companion Mary Young.1 Fiercely determined to be remembered...

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Postscript: My Turn

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pp. 193-199

Following the example of those who have come before me, I have written this biography in an effort to make something of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. In the process, I have been very much aware that I am in some ways saying as much about myself as I am about her. For in writing about Alva, I, like all historians whether they want to admit it or not, write from a personal...

Appendix: Belmont’s Financial Contributions to Woman’s Rights

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pp. 201-204


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pp. 205-249


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pp. 251-262


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pp. 263-272

About The Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780253005601
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253356611

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2011