Sat, 21 Aug 2010 21:40:58By Linda Murphy
Special to The Herald News
Posted Aug 21, 2010 @ 08:45 PM
NEWPORT, R.I. —
Alva Vanderbilt Belmont played a crucial role in the passage of the 19th amendment, so it’s only fitting that an event celebrating the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage this Thursday be held at the summer home where the unifying calls for votes for women echoed through the halls of Marble House.
“The passing of the 19th amendment was transformative for the country; half of the citizens were denied the vote, so it’s a mockery to say the country was a democracy before the passage of the 19th amendment,” said Joanne DeVoe, president of the League of Women Voters of R.I.
Belmont, a social reformer used her power and prestige as a Newport socialite to advocate for the cause of votes for women. She was so passionate about the issue that she had a dinnerware made with the slogan, “Votes for Women” which she used to serve meals at the stately marble “summer cottage” and give out as tokens at rallies that she held to raise money and call attention to the cause.
“She wasn’t just a society lady dabbling,” said Trudy Coxe, CEO and president of the Preservation Society of Newport County. “Her commitment to women’s rights started in the early 1900s.”
The Newport Preservation Society is hosting the 90th anniversary celebration in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, YWCA of Northern RI, Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, the Newport Restoration Foundation and the Newport Historical Society. The celebration on the terrace of Marble House, Belmont’s “temple to the arts,’ as she planned it, will feature music, poetry and readings from historical documents to commemorate the day that transformed the nation. “All anniversaries are occasions to remember what women did to get the vote and to remind people to use the vote responsibly to improve the country,” said DeVoe.
The League of Women Voters, a national non-profit, non-partisan organization with state and local chapters throughout the country was formed the same year with the intention of registering and educating voters and continues today to inform voters through debates, forums and consensus positions on issues for which it lobbies.
Described as a fiery redhead and a rebel even in her youth, Belmont received Marble House in 1892 as a 39th birthday gift from her husband, William Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. But before Belmont, who designed the marble and gold-encrusted home with architect Richard Morris Hunt, agreed to the gift, she made her husband agree that the home was hers outright.
She later divorced Vanderbilt and married her second husband, O.H.P. Belmont, owner of Belcourt Castle in 1908. “She was the first society woman to divorce and later in life, she used to brag that she set the stage for other women to divorce,” said Coxe. “You could probably argue that as one of the richest women in the world she did make a statement by divorcing her husband.”
After her second husband’s death in 1908 Belmont reopened Marble House and used her position in New York and Newport society and curiosity about the elaborate home to raise money for women’s causes. For the 1909 suffrage rally on the lawn of Marble House she charged $1 to hear the speakers on the lawn and $5 to tour the mansion. She also wrote “Melinda and her Sisters,” an operetta in partnership with songwriter Elsa Maxwell to convince people to grant women the right to vote. After passage of the 9th amendment in 1920 Belmont became the president of the National Women’s Party and was the founder of the Political Equality League.
The event celebrating the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage will be held at 11 a.m. and is free and open to the public. Marble House is located on Newport’s Bellevue Avenue.