Alva Belmont: Social Networking for Social Reform
By: Julia Klima, Collections Intern
You probably already know that Alva Belmont made substantial financial contributions to the National Woman’s Party and the greater cause of women’s suffrage in the United States (Further background information on Alva can be found in these previous blog posts: Express Yourself This Women’s History Month, Alva and her Scrapbooks). You may even know that Alva is responsible for purchasing or renting several properties that served as headquarters and campaign offices for the NWP. The work of the NWP often depended in large part on Alva’s donations, however they were not the most important resource Alva had to give to the cause of suffrage. Alva’s social capital was just as important as her financial capital. Alva’s wealthy upbringing and family connections immersed her in circles of social and political influence. Her experiences, willpower and keen organizational skills gave her the ability to put these connections to any use she chose. Alva’s choice to use her status to advocate for woman suffrage made her a unique asset to the NWP and foreshadowed the ways that people use social media to contribute to causes today.
Long before the invention and near ubiquity of the internet, Alva employed many strategies that would now be familiar to users of social media. For instance, instead of using donation-pledging websites, Alva crowd-funded various projects for the CU and the NWP by persuading her wealthy friends and neighbors to donate to suffrage campaigns. The NWP also profited from Alva’s social acumen in other ways. Just as celebrities today sometimes go on publicity tours or engineer elaborate stunts in order to create pictures or videos that “go viral,” Alva cultivated relationships with newspaper reporters, and orchestrated lavish and dramatic spectacles to ensure the presence of photographers at her events. She wrote a weekly column in the Society section of the Chicago Sunday Tribune, as well as numerous letters to editors of other publications through which she shared her thoughts and opinions and attempted to influence the opinions of readers; goals that today would find expression through blogs and Twitter in addition to traditional media.
Alva understood the importance of controlling one’s public image and media presence at a time when these concepts were new. While today it is commonplace to remove embarrassing posts or photos before a job interview, in the early 20th century people were just beginning to learn that how they appear or what they do on a given day might have far-reaching consequences. Alva kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings to monitor how she was perceived, and worked hard to get consistent coverage that portrayed her in a flattering light. In her work with the NWP these talents for self-promotion found expression in the form of advice (or domineering insistence, as one of her children or personal assistants might have characterized it) on the importance of personal image. Alva founded suffrage clubs in New York City that had hygiene and grooming instruction among their functions, and Alva is quoted as exhorting “women representing themselves to the world as suffrage advocates to look their best ” rather than wearing clothing “as grim as shrouds” as Alva called the simpler, functional dress previously characteristic of suffragists. This advice helped to counteract perceptions that suffragists neglected societal expectations of adherence to fashion and grooming standards.
Under Alva’s considerable influence, suffragists could no longer be discounted outright as unfeminine or unkempt; looking “respectable” became a major means of defense for the suffragists, forcing critics to judge them for their ideals, rather than their looks. This awareness of image had the added benefit of attracting the attention of taste-makers, making the suffragists seem more approachable to both the public and the press. Photographs of “pretty” suffragists were considered something of a novelty and were featured in newspaper coverage of pickets and other suffrage activities. Even suffragists not deemed especially attractive by reporters were often depicted in their best formal wear. Alva and other wealthy NWP supporters participated in pickets dressed to impress, in luxurious furs, forming a buffer of social status between the other protestors and the crowds, daring anyone to be seen hassling or arresting women of a superior social class.
As much as the suffrage activists needed the insulation provided by Alva’s respectability, she craved the validation that working and socializing with on-the-ground agitators gave her political views and desire for celebrity. Alva despised wealthy people who refused to devote their attention and resources to social good, or worse yet those who refused to be involved in politics at all. Alva was eager to distinguish herself from the “idle, useless, lonely women” she saw among her peers who squandered their power. Key to Alva’s deliberate self-presentation as a committed activist was her employment of young, attractive, and accomplished women who not only embodied the fresh, independent suffragist ideal depicted in Nina Allender’s cartoons, but also legitimized her by association. Although Alva could not recapture her youth and start over as a window-smashing radical activist or working-class champion of poor women, she could be sure to be publicly linked with such figures, thereby warding off accusations that she was a rich but meddlesome society grand-dame with no real, lasting interest in the concerns of average women.
Although Alva disapproved of upper-class people who claimed to care about social reform but refused to be publicly involved, she recognized the value of mixing the domestic sphere with public and publicity-generating political agendas. Alva used more traditional networking and fundraising tactics of hosting dinners, luncheons, rummage sales and dances as well as arranging and attending lectures and conferences. Alva also acknowledged that all women couldn’t leave their families and jobs to lobby Congress or petition their local officials, or participate in marches or pickets, but saw that the NWP could still benefit from the resources that the average woman did have at her disposal: her social and community connections to family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
The Suffragist encouraged subscribers to purchase subscriptions as gifts to other interested parties. Alva herself designed a tea set decorated with the slogan “Votes for Women.” In addition to providing monetary support through purchasing such goods, women could display their political leanings in their homes and invite others to socialize and discuss suffrage with less danger of being exposed to social ridicule and the possibility of reprisals in the professional sphere; risks that publicly active suffragists and picketers often faced. Alva acknowledged these dangers as part of the package of political activism, opining that upon joining the movement a suffragist became a “public person” who should be ready to meet with “public disapproval.”
Have you supported a cause through donations, volunteering, or direct campaigning? What influenced you to participate? Can you think of ways that political campaigns and calls for social or legal reform try to use personal spaces to advance the public aspects of their work? Do you share your views with your social network in person or online? Would you ever follow Alva’s examples and organize your peers to support something you are passionate about or would you prefer to spread awareness through casual discussions and your own private efforts? While few of us can hope to match Alva’s investments of time, energy, and money, we can all do our part. Help us continue to uphold Alva’s legacy – join her party, the Woman’s Party, and your membership will enable us to bring this history into more homes and change the conversations around women in society. Be like Alva, join today and share your participation on social media!