An important financial supporter of the US suffrage movement, and president of the National Woman’s Party (1921-1933).
Alva Erskine Smith was born into a wealthy family in Alabama and lived in New York City and Paris. She married into an even wealthier family, building her public image in the New York City elite by organizing big parties.
In 1895, she divorced her husband because of his infidelities. Her decision challenged the social norm that rich men could get away with anything – and she was awarded the largest divorce settlement of that time. Soon after, she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, one of her first husband’s best friends.
After her second husband’s death in 1908, she devoted her time, connections, and fortune to women’s suffrage. Often referred to as “Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont”, she was a sponsor and member of the executive boards of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) and National Woman’s Party (NWP).
She also created her own suffrage organization, the Political Equality Association.
For the political purpose, Belmont used her summer mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Known as Marble House, for it consumed more than half a million cubic feet of marble.
She opened it for tours, that included lectures on woman suffrage, and organized suffrage conferences there in 1909 and 1914. Conference speakers included Julia Ward Howe, Anna Howard Shaw, and Alva’s daughter Consuelo.
In order to open the Suffrage Movement beyond the white upper classes, she established 11 suffrage settlement houses in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Long Island Those. Those were social spaces for meetings, classes, entertainment, reading rooms, and affordable lunch for working-class women and men. The plates and cups in those settlement “restaurants” had the motto “Votes for Women” printed on them.
After devoting her life and fortune to fight for gender equality and women’s right to vote, even though she lived to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she swore she would never vote until there was a woman nominated for the position of president.
“I was one of the first women in America to dare criticize openly an influential man’s behavior”
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She sponsored the 1914 tour of the English suffragist Christabel Pankhurst.
- She had three children. She forced her only daughter Consuelo to marry a man she didn’t love to secure her financial future. She said: “You cannot help your children to advantages through sentimental romance but through money, which alone has power”.
- She was buried with a banner bearing Susan B. Anthony’s words: “Failure is impossible”.