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  • Marci Hilt

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont

January’s Woman of Ward 6 is Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a prominent multi-millionaire American socialite and a major figure in the American women’s suffrage movement. She was one of the founders of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and helped gain support for the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Ward 6 is named for Belmont and Alice Paul, another key figure in the fight for women’s voting rights.

The Ward 6 Democrats are recognizing and honoring Ward 6 women who have made significant contributions to better our community for the 2020 anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

Belmont was an important strategist and officer for the suffrage movement. She organized the first picketing for women’s voting rights ever to take place before the White House in 1917. When the National Woman’s Party headquarters in the old Brick Capitol was seized to construct the Supreme Court building, Belmont bought a large brick historic home now known as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, located close the U.S. Capitol, and donated it for use as NWP headquarters.

Born in Mobile, Ala., in 1853, Alva Smith agreed to marry William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt during a party at the storied Greenbrier in West Virginia in 1874. William was an eligible young nouveau riche bachelor, but Belmont had a family name respected by society. Her father was unable to regain the family’s wealth and social position in the South after the Civil War. By marring Vanderbilt, she revived her family’s social position and financial status.

While married to Vanderbilt, she built grand houses with architect Richard Morris Hunt and once threw a costumed ball in 1883 for 1,200 people that cost a staggering $3 million. When the elite New Yorkers wouldn’t sell the Vanderbilts a box at the Academy of Music, she helped found the Metropolitan Opera.

In March 1895, she shocked society by divorcing Vanderbilt, who had long been unfaithful, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite. She received a large financial settlement said to be in excess of $10 million, in addition to several estates including Marble House, the Vanderbilt summer mansion in Newport, R.I. She remarried in 1896 to Oliver Belmont, heir to August Belmont, for whom the Belmont Stakes is named. After Oliver Belmont’s death in 1908, she took on the women’s voting rights cause and became an outspoken suffragist.

She spent her latter years campaigning wholeheartedly for women’s suffrage and bucking the status quo by including the rights of black women, who were often neglected by the movement.

She was a woman very different from her time and class, according to novelist Therese Anne Fowler, author of A Well-Behaved Woman, a novel about Alva Belmont, who defied convention at every turn. Fowler’s historical novel, which was published in 2018, is available in local bookstores and on-line. The book is currently in development as a possible TV series.

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