because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Alva Vanderbilt

Alva Smith was born to money in the mid-1800's, grew up summering in Newport, Rhode Island, and attended private school in Paris, France. So it was hardly remarkable that she might marry one of the Vanderbilt boys and wind up even richer.

Then, in 1895, she shocked polite society by divorcing her husband of twenty years, taking more than $10 million and several estates with her, and shortly marrying a good friend of the family who happened to be five years younger. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), he died only eight years later, giving Alva the opportunity to turn her undivided attention to the women's suffrage movement, which she did.

She used her money to bankroll the fight for women's right to vote in Great Britain, as well as the United States, founded the Political Equality League, and even bailed out women sweatshop workers who were arrested for picketing at a labor strike in New York City. More importantly, at a time when most of the women pushing for the vote were educated, middle class White women, Vanderbilt established a "suffrage settlement house" in Harlem and openly welcomed African-American and immigrant women to weekend retreats at one of her many opulent estates.

It is true that she was a pushy, sometimes arrogant millionaire who loved to live in the lap of luxury and once paid $3 million to put on a single party for a thousand guests. But she also wrote newspaper articles and spoke at and chaired conferences she often paid for, as well. And as the President of the National Women's Party, Vanderbilt helped to organize the first ever picketing of the White House. Her goal -- which she did not achieve (more's the pity) -- was to push through the Lucretia Mott Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It would have read "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." That might well have turned every woman in America into an in-your-face woman.

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