Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: From Socialite to Suffragette

Alva Belmont was a wealthy socialite who used her fortune to advance the women’s rights movement in the early 1900s. Born on January 17, 1853 in Mobile, Alabama, and educated in France, Alva settled in New York City in the 1870s with family. A few decades later, Alva would be known as one of the foremost leaders of the women’s rights movement in the U.S. and internationally.

After returning to the States from France to live in New York, Belmont married William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of multibillionaire tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1875. While exceedingly rich, William and Alva were initially excluded from New York high society. Eventually with her never-give-up spirit, Belmont would win her place in society with a legendary costume ball in 1883, where she invited all of New York’s elite.

After her husband’s death in 1908, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont dedicated herself and fortune to the struggle for women’s rights, specifically suffrage. To that end, she founded the Political Equality Association, affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York City in 1909.

The same year, Belmont traveled to England where she attended suffrage rallies and was inspired by the work of other stalwart suffragists. Embracing the more aggressive tactics employed by those suffragists she met in England, Alva took those tools and her passion to fight the good fight at home in the U.S.

In 1914, she left the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), later became known as the National Women’s Party (NWP), and focused her efforts on the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, founded by Alice Paul. Belmont served on the organization’s board and allowed it to use her summer estate at Marble House for events as a headquarters.

After American women won the legal right to vote in 1920 via the 19th amendment, Belmont took over the leadership of the NWP. Under her stewardship, and with the help of her fortune, Belmont helped the NWP establish a foothold with headquarters in Washington, D.C. Aside from suffrage movements, she also supported such causes as the Women’s Trade Union League, and donated funds to women run organizations who were on the verge of going bankrupt.

In her later years, Belmont became more focused on women’s rights on an international scale, and spent most of the mid-1920s in France. She created the International Feminist Committee. Although known to have an eccentric, surly disposition, Alva was well-respected by her peers and those of whom who fought alongside her for women’s rights. Among the women in history who would carry the torch for the battle towards women’s rights, Belmont will always be remembered for her dedication to the fight for women’s equality.