62 LONGISLANDPRESS.COM • MARCH 2021
LI’S UNEXPECTED SUFFRAGIST
BY ANNIE WILKINSON
In Washington, D.C., hundreds of
flag-waving protesters rallied, displaying
huge signs and shouting their
message. More than 100 were arrested
While this could be the narrative of the
Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building
by domestic terrorists who questioned
election results, it unfolded 104 years
ago. It marked the first time that protesters
picketed in front of the White House.
It was January 1917 when the group
began their vigil, and they kept it up,
whatever the weather, six days a week,
for six months. Who were they?
Members of the National Woman’s Party,
their cause was women’s suffrage:
the right of women by law to vote in
national or local elections. The NWP
was formed by suffragette leader Alice
Paul and by unexpected women’s rights
advocate, wealthy Long Island socialite
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the party’s
president and primary benefactor.
Known for saying, “Pray to God. She
will help you,” Belmont combined her
wealth with public relations savvy.
Working with Paul, she organized the
White House protest and influenced
major breakthroughs for women.
In the early 20th century women were
mostly perceived as demure second-class
citizens. They were supposed to go along
with the rules laid out by men. They
were not supposed to be militant.
Alva Ertskin Smith’s father was a
prominent cotton trader in Mobile,
Ala., where she was born in 1853. Her
charmed life included summering in
posh Newport, R.I., European travel,
and a Paris boarding school education.
But key events shifted her beliefs to
a bolder, broader worldview. When
the Civil War devastated the cotton
trade, the family moved to New York
City around 1859. By the time she was
a teenager, her parents had died. Insulating
herself from poverty, in 1875, the
22-year-old married William Kissam
Vanderbilt, heir to the enormous Vanderbilt
To enhance her public image as
Mrs. Vanderbilt, she cultivated relationships
with journalists as well as
Alva Belmont on May 21, 1922.
businesspeople and politicians. The
couple drew attention during the Gilded
Age by building grand houses, including
the lavish, 110-room country estate
called Idle Hour on Long Island’s Connetquot
River in Oakdale, a chateau-esque
mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan
which she helped design, and an
opulent $9 million Newport summer
palace they named Marble House. Later,
she would build Sands Point’s Beacon
House, described as a “gothic fantasy
castle” by historian Howard Kroplick
But then she discovered her husband’s
adultery. Their 1895 divorce yielded
her a personal yearly fortune of
$200,000 plus property. The gossips’
tongues wagged over the scandal, driven
by chatter about her quietly taking
a lover named Oliver Hazard Perry
Belmont, whom she wed in 1896.
The New York Times reported that “Mr.
Belmont’s attention to Mrs. Vanderbilt
was talked about long before she
secured her divorce from W. K. Vanderbilt
…. The breach between Mr. and
Mrs. Vanderbilt became so broad that
a divorce seemed inevitable.”
Alva and Oliver Belmont had two summer
houses in Newport and built the
ornate Brookholt Mansion on 800 acres
on Long Island off Front Street in East
Meadow in 1897. He died at Brookholt
of septic poisoning in 1908.
Being divorced and widowed led to a
deep depression; she took up charity
work to fight it off, and attended suffrage
meetings. She was so moved that
she devoted her time, her fortune, and
her home to women’s rights, especially
suffrage and better standards of work
and wages for working women.
Her consciousness shifted: After witnessing
a militant suffrage organization’s
London rally, she wrote, “There
was a force in me that seemed to compel
me to do what I wanted to do regardless
of what might happen afterwards.”
She became more confrontational and
sanctioned stronger tactics. As reporter
Karen Grigsby Bates told NPR, “Alva
embraced feminism and was inclined
to view the very notion of romantic
love as a plot against all women.”
Because of her financial and other support,
the 19th Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution was ratified on Aug. 26,
1920, putting women on an equal basis
with men. She continued working for
women’s rights by writing articles and
became a noted architectural designer;
she was one of the first women elected
to the American Institute of Architects.
She died in Paris in 1933. Her casket
was draped with a purple protest
banner featuring a quote by suffragist
Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible.”
Belmont is buried at Woodlawn
Cemetery in the Bronx.
A virtual photo exhibit on Alva Vanderbilt
Belmont celebrates Women’s History
Month at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt
Museum throughout the month of March.
“There was a force in me that seemed to compel
me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what
might happen afterwards,” Ava Belmont said.