Women We Celebrate
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont
1853 – 1933
The Sewall-Belmont House is named for the benefactor of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), Alva Belmont. An ardent feminist and agitator for women’s equality, Belmont was devoted to women’s equality, and donated thousands of dollars to the NWP to advance its work for national and international women’s rights.
Born in 1853 on an Alabama cotton plantation, Alva Belmont claimed she learned of women’s inequality as a child when she was told that girls were not supposed to run or climb trees. At 22, she married William Kissam Vanderbilt, the second son of William H. Vanderbilt, owner of the Grand Central Railroad. The couple had three children, Consuelo, William II, and Harold Vanderbilt. In 1895, they divorced and Belmont received a substantial monetary settlement and Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island. One year later, she married Oliver H. P. Belmont.
Alva dedicated her life to women’s causes after Oliver’s death in 1908, including support of the garment workers strike, where she pushed for a boycott of nonunion dress manufacturers. In 1909, she founded the Political Equality Association in New York, working under the umbrella of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1909-1910, Alva coordinated and funded the move of the NAWSA headquarters from Ohio to New York City.
In 1909, Belmont witnessed a Pankhurst rally at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and it soon became clear to the NAWSA that she was more militant than conservative. Inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst, Alva wrote: “’I agreed with Mrs. Pankhurst when she said to me: ‘With your conservative suffragists in America suffrage is still an ethical principle. With us it is a political principle. You talk. We act.’” In October 1913, she arranged to bring Emmeline Pankhurst to the U.S. for a speaking tour, but authorities detained Mrs. Pankhurst at Ellis Island, for fear that she was bringing her militant tactics to the U.S. Belmont hired lawyers who pressured the Commissioner of Immigration to free Mrs. Pankhurst after two and a half days. According to Doris Stevens, Alva was “the first suffrage leader [to] publicly commend the tactics of the English militants.”
In 1914, Belmont broke from the NAWSA and turned her focus to Alice Paul and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), whose strategy was more in line with Belmont’s. She wrote her first check to the CU (later the NWP) for $5,000 and from 1914 to 1920, served on the executive board of the organization. The Suffragist welcomed the newly elected Belmont to the Executive Committee of the Congressional Union in February 1914 hailing her extensive philanthropic work, her administrative and financial talents, and her expertise in the field of architecture. In August 1914, Belmont hosted the Congressional Union conference at Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island and opened a summer headquarters for the organization.
Belmont also helped shape the new CU/NWP policy of holding the party in power, the Democratic Party, responsible for not adopting a federal suffrage amendment. She served as chairman of the Woman Voters’ Convention at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in September 1915, which launched the CU’s suffrage envoys to Washington, D.C. Belmont greeted the envoys during their stop in New York and expressed faith in the power and commitment of the western women voters to use their ballot to achieve woman suffrage. Belmont was also the one to suggest the need for “a women’s party” and pushed the CU to rebrand itself as the National Woman’s Party in 1916. At the Chicago convention that founded the Woman’s Party (in June 1916), Belmont pledged half a million dollars to the new organization, “believed to be the largest political campaign pledge ever given” (The Suffragist June 10, 1916), and appealed to the women voters of the United States to hold presidential candidates responsible for liberating all American women.
After passage of the 19th Amendment, Belmont became the president of the NWP, a position she held until her death in 1933. At the same time, Belmont’s views on women’s equality became more extreme. At an NWP meeting in 1920, she urged the organization to “obtain…full equality with men” and to “make (women) a power in the life of the state.” She argued for the NWP to become a third American political party to form a wedge between the Democrats and Republicans, and for the election of a female president. Vowing to vote only if—and when—a female was nominated for President of the United States, Alva never utilized the right she so strongly fought for. Although Alice Paul privately agreed with Belmont’s views, she tactfully persuaded Belmont to support the Equal Rights Amendment instead believing this to be the best way for the NWP to make a change to women’s status.
Alva Belmont’s financial contributions helped sustain the NWP, and all policy matters required her approval. Although difficult to work with at times, Belmont was vital to the existence and success of the NWP. In 1921, she gave the NWP money to purchase the new headquarters in the Old Brick Capitol, but the NWP was forced to sell in 1929 so the Supreme Court could be built; at that point, they moved across the street to 144 Constitution Avenue. During the 1920’s Belmont moved to France where she settled permanently and her focus shifted to international women’s equality issues. In 1926, she formed the International Feminist Committee, which later became the International Advisory Committee of the NWP.
As a philanthropic activist, Alva Belmont “blazed the trail for the rest to walk in.” She died in 1933 in France where she lived her later years. Her funeral at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City featured all female pallbearers and was attended by approximately 1,500 people. Having left strict instructions regarding her wishes for the service, Belmont’s coffin was draped with one of the picket banners with the slogan “Failure is Impossible.” She is buried next to Oliver Belmont in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.