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The Radical Rich

The Radical Rich

In the early 1900s, three wealthy New York City women lent their purses and prestige to obtain the vote for their sister Americans.

"General" Rosalie Gardiner Jones leading a march for suffrage from NYC to Albany, New York.
Click image above for slideshow.

By the early 20th century, New York was a city of women in revolt. Working women were organizing strikes against unsafe and oppressive factory conditions; settlement workers were attacking poverty; black women were establishing clubs for “the uplift of the race”; middle-class women were pushing aside barriers to enter college and become professors, doctors, and lawyers. All of these women took up the nearly moribund fight to win the vote—a fight that had brought suffrage to women in only four sparsely populated states: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.

By 1908, a whole new generation of activists was taking to the streets. They were led by Harriot Stanton Blatch, a Vassar graduate and the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a founding member of the suffrage movement. Blatch bridged the divide between working women and middle-class women by convincing them that the political power that came with the vote was critically needed to change the lives of all women.

This new generation used even more provocative tactics than their foremothers had tried. Not content to hold conventions of like-minded people or collect petitions to pressure government officials, these suffragists broke all the rules. They marched yearly on Fifth Avenue, where tens of thousands gathered to gape. They stood on soapboxes in city parks and on Wall Street, where they were pelted by everything from eggs and tomatoes to bags of water. They demonstrated at the Statue of Liberty and passed out leaflets in the outer boroughs.

Yet all this activity cost money. And the drive for the vote had faltered—not only because its demands were so against the grain, but also because pressing for these demands against ferocious opposition cost more money than activists could raise.

It was at this critical point that brave women with wealth and status began to come forward, bringing not only their money to the fight, but bringing their peers, their expertise, and their passion for reform. In doing so they challenged social taboos that prohibited upperclass women from appearing in public in any controversial way, fraternizing with radicals or workers, or acting according to one's values. In doing so, they joined the largest mass movement that had ever swept the country.  

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a belle from Mobile, Alabama (for photo, see slideshow above), settled in New York City at the turn of the century. There she married the grandson of mega-millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt and shocked society when she divorced him on grounds of adultery, receiving a huge fortune and Marble House as a settlement. Soon afterward, at age 43, she married Oliver Belmont, son of August Belmont, the American agent of the Rothschild banking empire. Mrs. Belmont now lavished her Herculean energy on social life, European tours, and directing the renovation of Oliver’s sixty-room Newport mansion and building a vast Long Island estate. In 1908, Oliver died following an appendectomy.

Within a year, Belmont declared herself for suffrage and announced her admiration for the suffrage militants in England, who were chaining themselves to the fence around Parliament and conducting hunger strikes in prison. Like a lioness loosed from her cage, Belmont became an important strategist and leader for suffrage. She raised funds and orchestrated her circles of socialite, business and political connections to support the movement, quickly forming her own organization, the Political Equality League, which had outposts in all neighborhoods of the city for all classes of women. In 1910, she paid the bail for imprisoned striking shirtwaist workers and funded a large rally at the Hippodrome Theater to raise support for them.

With staggering energy and a political imagination that seemed to know no bounds, she converted her Long Island estate into a school to train poor girls to become farmers and landscape gardeners. Most shockingly of all, she arranged public meetings with “Negro” women, most of whom went on to form separate suffrage organizations.

Although Belmont refused to participate in suffrage parades because African-American women were not marching, she agreed to do so in 1912, when a contingent of black women did parade. Belmont even supplied baby-sitting services at her political headquarters for women marchers. Twenty thousand took to the streets as crowds gathered on the sidewalks. Belmont marched proudly at the head of a contingent of shopgirls, eyes straight ahead, as though she dared anyone to criticize her. 

Louisine Havemeyer (see slideshow above) also joined the movement after her husband’s death, but she did so more slowly and with more timidity. She and Henry O. Havemeyer, known as “the sugar king” for the refining business that was the source of his wealth, were married for 24 untroubled years. Together, they amassed the art collection that is credited with bringing Impressionism to America. When Henry died in 1907, family and friends worried about his wife’s deep depression.

Soon Mary Cassatt, the American painter in Paris who had sold many of her first works to Mrs. Havemeyer, stepped up to save her: “Go in for the Suffrage, that means great things for the future,” Cassatt wrote to her from abroad.

Havemeyer did go in for the suffrage, at first using only her resources. In 1912, while Belmont was defying the world by marching, Havemeyer anonymously loaned her El Greco and Goya paintings to an art show at a “suffrage shop” that also featured speechmaking and fundraising. A year later, she, too, joined the Fifth Avenue suffrage march, an action that “dismayed” her children.