"Hoffert's refined understanding of how a biographer's subjectivity shapes the narrative of someone else's life strengthens her engaging look at Belmont's place in history.... [H]er expert handling of the autobiographical source material reveals how intricately woven good biography can be.... Highly recommended." —Choice
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women's Rightsby Sylvia D. Hoffert
A New York socialite and feminist, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was known to be domineering, temperamental, and opinionated. Her resolve to get her own way regardless of the consequences stood her in good stead when she joined the American woman suffrage movement in 1909. Thereafter, she used her wealth, her administrative expertise, and her social celebrity to help
A New York socialite and feminist, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was known to be domineering, temperamental, and opinionated. Her resolve to get her own way regardless of the consequences stood her in good stead when she joined the American woman suffrage movement in 1909. Thereafter, she used her wealth, her administrative expertise, and her social celebrity to help convince Congress to pass the 19th Amendment and then to persuade the exhausted leaders of the National Woman’s Party to initiate a world wide equal rights campaign. Sylvia D. Hoffert argues that Belmont was a feminist visionary and that her financial support was crucial to the success of the suffrage and equal rights movements. She also shows how Belmont’s activism, and the money she used to support it, enriches our understanding of the personal dynamics of the American woman’s rights movement. Her analysis of Belmont’s memoirs illustrates how Belmont went about the complex and collaborative process of creating her public self.
"Sylvia D. Hoffert has made a convincing case that Belmont's work on behalf of women's suffrage was critical to the movement's success." —Journal of American History
"A major contribution to our understanding of the women's rights movement in America and to feminist biography and historiography." —Ruth Crocker, author of Mrs. Russell Sage: Women's Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America
"Hoffert ably tells the fascinating story of Belmont’s rise to celebrity status and her crucial contributions to suffrage and the women’s rights movement" —CCWH Newsletter
"Sylvia D. Hoffert has made a convincing case that Belmont's work on behalf of women's suffrage was critical to the movement's success." Journal of American History
"Hoffert ably tells the fascinating story of Belmont’s rise to celebrity status and her crucial contributions to suffrage and the women’s rights movement" CCWH Newsletter
"A major contribution to our understanding of the women's rights movement in America and to feminist biography and historiography." Ruth Crocker, author of Mrs. Russell Sage: Women's Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America
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Alva Vanderbilt Belmont
Unlikely Champion of Women's Rights
By Sylvia D. Hoffert
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Sylvia D. Hoffert
All rights reserved.
An Impossible Child
Alva Described Herself as "an impossible child" when she dictated her memoir to her private secretary, Sara Bard Field, in the summer of 1917. Some fifteen years later, she claimed that she "was probably the worst child that ever lived" in yet another attempt to tell the story of her life. Those who wish to leave a portrait of themselves for posterity are not usually so self-critical, but there was nothing typical about Alva. Given the evidence she provided to illustrate her point, it seems clear that she was proud of her unwillingness to behave herself and her determination to do as she pleased despite the predictable consequences. Her reputation as a holy terror meant that she got a great deal of attention. But that attention was not necessarily accompanied by the affection she craved. She spent her whole life searching for some way to reconcile her willfulness with her desire for love and friendship.
The middle child in a family of five children, Alva was born into an affluent slaveholding family in the seaport town of Mobile, Alabama, on January 17, 1853.3 Her father, Murray Forbes Smith, grew up in Virginia and trained as a lawyer. Born in 1823, her mother, Phoebe Ann, was the daughter of Robert Desha, a cotton planter and politician whose family was originally from Kentucky. He served as a member of the Tennessee delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1827 to 1831. During that time, he became involved in the political controversy surrounding the virtue of Margaret Timberlake Eaton, the wife of Andrew Jackson's secretary of war. The experience must have soured him on politics. He decided not to run for reelection in 1830, left Washington, and moved his family to Mobile, Alabama, where he established a business buying and selling cotton.
Mobile was a boomtown by the 1850s. Located thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the shimmering waters of Mobile Bay, it served as a commercial outlet for Alabama planters. It was, said Hiram Fuller, "a pleasant city of some thirty-thousand inhabitants—where people live in cotton houses and ride in cotton carriages. They buy cotton, sell cotton, eat cotton, drink cotton, and dream cotton. They marry cotton wives, and unto them are born cotton children. In enumerating the charms of a fair widow, they begin by saying she makes so many bales of cotton." A foreign visitor fascinated by what he saw, Fuller could not resist the temptation to engage in a bit of hyperbole. But he was essentially correct. Most of the inhabitants of Mobile were in one way or another associated with commercial services needed to sell and transport cotton.
When her parents married in 1840, Alva's father gave up his law practice in Virginia and moved to Mobile where he joined his father-in-law in the cotton business. His success in selling and transporting cotton enabled him to live in a two-story, stone house with a crenulated roof and substantial-looking Tudor arches over the front porch. Located on the corner of Government and Conception Streets, it stood in the most fashionable part of the city. Its spacious rooms were bright and airy, with big windows and high ceilings. Its lawn, dotted with magnolia trees and well-tended flower gardens, provided the space for his children to play. Attached to the back of the house were screened-in porches, one on each floor, designed to protect the home's inhabitants from Mobile's bothersome insect population and the sweltering heat of the summer sun. A luxurious bathhouse tiled in marble sat in the backyard. Alva lived in this home until she was about six.
Alva explained her rebelliousness and refusal to conform to the expectations of others as a result of having been born into a family populated by individuals who, in her words, "would stand neither for oppression nor even dictation." She claimed that her mother's forebears had been French Huguenots from La Rochelle who fled religious persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They eventually found safe haven in Pennsylvania and then in the slave-holding South.
Her paternal great-grandmother, Margaret Stirling, was equally determined to thwart efforts to dictate how she lived her life. Her aunt, Jean Stirling, the wife of James Erskine, Lord Alva and Barjarg, reared Margaret after her mother died. Much to the consternation of her guardians, Margaret met and fell in love with Dr. Murray Forbes of Edinburgh, a respectable man but certainly not the sort they expected her to marry. When she refused to give him up, her family disowned her. The couple fled Scotland and eventually settled in Virginia. It was from the likes of these that Alva claimed to have learned to appreciate the value of personal liberty and the costs of claiming it.
If, as she alleged, stories of her forebears encouraged her to insist on doing as she pleased, experiences in her childhood sensitized her to the subordination of women and convinced her that misbehaving was an effective way to get what she wanted. One of her earliest memories was the death of her thirteen-year-old brother, Murray Forbes Jr., in November 1857. Apparently, he had been their father's favorite. When friends came to offer their condolences, she heard them say to her mother, "Your husband will never recover from this blow. No one can take this child's place with him." Alva, who was four at the time, remembered being filled with "hot resentment" at the thought of her father's indifference to her. She simply could not believe that "a dead son [was] worth more than a live daughter." That incident served as her introduction to male privilege and the patriarchal social system that supported it. She, quite literally, never got over it.
She clearly believed that the story was important. She included it in her first autobiography written in 1917 and again years later in the memoir she dictated to her private secretary before her death. Indeed, the story had both profound implications and extraordinary explanatory power in the sense that it provided her audience with a partial but plausible explanation for why the campaign for woman's rights had such appeal to her. Who could quarrel with the idea that a little girl's heart was broken when she realized that her gender denied her the love of her father?
What is striking about Alva's account of her brother's death is that it is in spirit, if not in the exact words, the same story that Elizabeth Cady Stanton told in her memoir published in 1898. When Stanton was eleven, her elder brother died. He was, as she put it, "the pride of my father's heart." Her father was inconsolable. "Pale and immovable" as he grieved at his son's bier, he seemed oblivious to her desire to provide him comfort. She stood for a long time watching him and then climbed into his lap. "He mechanically put his arm about me and, with my head resting against his beating heart, we both sat in silence," Stanton wrote. "At length he heaved a deep sigh and said: 'Oh daughter, I wish you were a boy!'" Stanton could not become the boy her father wished for, but she was determined to become as much like a boy as possible. She learned to ride horses and excelled in her schoolwork. But her father's only response to her academic and athletic accomplishments was to add insult to injury by observing again that she should have been born a boy. She admitted that thereafter her "sorrow" over her discovery "that a girl weighed less in the scale of being than a boy" was always on her mind.
It seems inconceivable that Belmont and Stanton responded to virtually the same childhood experience in exactly the same way. It is more likely that Alva read Stanton's memoir or heard some version of the story once she began associating with women who had been involved in the early woman's rights movement. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that she was even aware of Stanton's story let alone that she used it to frame her own narrative. What is important here is that, like Stanton, Alva used the tale to give credibility to her claim that she was predisposed to sympathize with those who were concerned about the gender inequities that characterized American society and that she needed only to find herself in circumstances that would encourage her to act upon those sympathies before she became a woman's rights convert.
Alva claimed that following the death of her brother, she became extremely sensitive about the devaluation of girls. Indeed, once she discovered that boys had more freedom to express themselves than girls, she refused to have anything to do with the daughters of her mother's friends and did what she could to avoid participating in their activities. She resented the fact that her swimming suit, which had long sleeves and covered her from neck to ankles, weighed her down and inhibited her movements and that she was forbidden to ride horses around the stable yard because it was considered too dangerous. It soon became obvious to her, as she put it, that women and girls were expected to "play the part of spectators in the theatre of life while men and boys have the vivid action." "There was a static quality to a girl's life, a monotony and restriction in it from which I rebelled from the very first," she said.
Rejecting what she called a girl's "hot house" existence, she claimed to have played only with boys so that she could enjoy the physical activities and independence that characterized their lives. She rode her pony Dobin wherever she chose, sometimes to the beach, sometimes to the woods. And with childish oblivion to the danger that was involved, she and her playmates rolled down the steep grassy slopes that led to the rocky beach in Newport, Rhode Island. As an adult she acknowledged that only "the inscrutable law of Chance" prevented them from dashing their brains out.
Determined to do anything that was necessary in order to preserve the prerogative of enjoying the "freedom from excessive restraint" with which she felt that boys were blessed, she asked for no special treatment from them. "I met them on their own ground," she said. "I gave blow for blow. I accepted any challenge. I stopped at nothing attempted." But she sometimes had to defend her right to participate in their activities. Take the case of Pepe del Vallay, who came to visit her playmate Fernando Yznaga in Newport one summer. When Pepe expressed distaste for playing with a girl, he influriated her but she took no action. One day, however, after she had scrambled up an apple tree, Pepe removed the ladder that she had used to reach its high branches. And when she began to climb down, he pelted her with apples. Dodging the fruit, she claims to have come "down that tree like a monkey." By the time she was on the ground, she was livid. Oblivious to her bleeding hands and skinned knees, she ran after the fleeing Pepe, threw him down, choked him, and stomped on him, all the while screaming, "'I'll show you what girls can do.'" She recalled that spectators stopped the fight and that she was temporarily excommunicated from polite society for her efforts. But well into her sixties, she continued to be proud of having defended her right to play with the boys.
Not surprisingly, Alva was the bane of her mother's existence. "The combination of rebellion and daring were difficult for her to meet," she admitted. As the mistress of a house filled with slaves and children, Phoebe was in charge of discipline. According to Alva, she relied on "wise and simple reasoning" when it was possible but resorted to corporeal punishment when she thought her children or servants deserved it. Alva maintained that while her mother found it necessary to punish her often, the whippings she administered were always "delivered in love not anger." Family lore maintained that one year she received a whipping every day. But neither corporeal punishment nor the threat of it proved an effective deterrent. "I knew it would be the inevitable consequence of my actions just as death is the inevitable result of life," she confessed. She considered the punishment she received both deserved and unavoidable but found that the joy she experienced doing what she wished more than made up for the whippings, unpleasant and painful as they must have been. So anticipating and accepting "the storm and chastisement" that were the inevitable consequences of her willfulness, she simply wore her mother down. Behavior, once proscribed and often repeated, eventually went unnoticed. In retrospect she came to believe that "there was a force in me that seemed to compel me to do what I wanted to do regardless of what might happen afterwards." As an adult, the conviction that rebellion and victimization were inextricably intertwined prepared her to accept the consequences of rejecting or thwarting social convention when it suited her interests to do so. Her mantra seems to have been "I will do what I please, I will be punished, I will persevere, I will triumph."
Alva's determination to dominate those around her also exhibited itself at an early age. The fact that she was living in a slave-owning society only encouraged her in that regard. On Sundays in Mobile, for example, she remembered watching out the library window in great anticipation for her godmother to drive up to the house to pick her up for dinner. When the liveried coachman pulled the barouche up to her godmother's house, Alva found a small group of slave children waiting for her in the drive. She remembered spending the rest of the day "tyrannizing" them. She denied that she physically harmed them, but she recalled being very "conscious of [her] superiority" and contemptuous of their apparent willingness to submit to her mistreatment. That being the case, she "lost no chance to assert [her] masterful position."
When Alva was about six, her family moved to New York City. It is unclear why her father abandoned his business and stately home in Alabama to move north. The panic of 1857 may have undermined his credit. Increasing sectional tensions may have forced him to choose between regional loyalty and commercial opportunity. There is also evidence to suggest that her mother was unhappy living in Mobile. Phoebe reputedly had social ambitions and spent vast amounts of money regularly hosting lavish entertainments. But for some reason those whom she hoped to impress remained aloof. According to one gossip, "Some people ate Mrs. Smith's suppers, many did not. There was needless and ungracious comment, and one swift writer pasquinaded her social ambition in a pamphlet for 'private' circulation." Subjected to public humiliation, Phoebe may have been more than willing to find another milieu for her efforts to establish herself as a leader of society.
Whatever the couple's motivation for moving, Murray Smith's choice of New York was a calculated one. New York had long provided southern cotton merchants with credit, insurance, transportation, and marketing services. But the nature of the trade between New York and Mobile had gradually changed over the years. Originally cotton traders had sent their heavy, burlap-wrapped cotton bales to New York for transshipment to markets in New England, Liverpool, or Le Havre. By 1859, they had begun to cut costs by shipping their cotton directly to their customers. Still dependent on New York for financial services, however, they shipped samples of their cotton and bills of lading to agents in New York. Alva's father had every reason to believe that his knowledge, experience, and connections would help to ensure his success in this lucrative business.
The change of scene may have improved her parents' prospects, but it did nothing to improve Alva's behavior. When it became clear to Phoebe that the nursemaids could not handle Alva, she assigned one of the family slaves to entertain her daughter and keep her out of trouble. His strategy for getting her to do what she was supposed to do was to bribe her by treating her to a trip to the market and then to the stables before he escorted her to school. He was, Alva recalled, "the first one who ever tried through any other means than the rod to direct my imperious rebellions." She claimed, however, that his success in controlling her depended upon her willingness to obey. In essence, she pictured herself as managing him instead of the other way around. When she was with Monroe, she said, she got what she wanted. "I bossed him," she confessed. "It was a case of absolute control on my part."
Excerpted from Alva Vanderbilt Belmont by Sylvia D. Hoffert. Copyright © 2012 Sylvia D. Hoffert. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Sylvia D. Hoffert is Emerita Professor of History at Texas A&M University and author of A History of Gender in America and Jane Grey Swisshem: An Unconventional Life.
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