When Gilded Suffragists Reached Out To Black Activists

The history of the white women’s suffrage movement in America is a succession of attempts by black activists to join the parade — only to be pushed aside by expediency or bigotry. As we approach Black History Month, it is important to honor the insistence of African-American women that they had earned a place in feminist activism, and would not be denied.

But for a brief moment in the Progressive Era, known for the breadth of its cross-class coalitions, this history was interrupted by a spurt of cooperation between the two camps. It began when a group of wealthy white women — accustomed to flaunting tradition and setting new trends — tried to broaden the movement’s base.

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, as controversial as she was committed to the cause, had inherited wealth from two Gilded Age family fortunes — the first after her divorce from William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1895, the next after the death of her second husband, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1908. A 56-year-old socialite with homes in Manhattan, Long Island and Newport R.I., Alva described herself as “worn out with social gain,” eager for a new cause.

Adopting the cause of suffragists, she opened Marble House, her opulent summer “cottage” at Newport, to a suffrage fundraiser. She single-handedly moved the mainstream National American Women’s Suffrage Association from its tiny headquarters in Warren, Ohio, to sumptuous offices in New York City. And she started her own new suffrage organization, the Political Equality Association, opening chapters all over the city.

To bridge the distance between the races that had existed in the movement for forty years, she asked Fanny Garrison Villard, daughter of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, to stand with her as she reached out to women and men of color. For Alva it was an act of rebellion as well as practicality. Ambitious, she craved fame for her suffrage activism – but infamy would do too, as long as the newspapers gave her ink.

Willing to upset the strict social codes of a class that often snubbed her after her divorce from a Vanderbilt, she persuaded Irene Moorman, president of the Negro Women’s Business League, that white progressives were interested in extending the female franchise to all women. Moorman dutifully organized a suffrage meeting at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, then on West 53rd Street. Belmont spoke of “that bond of humanity and equality which alone the woman suffrage movement can create.” If more than half the two hundred in attendance joined her Political Equality Association, she promised to provide them a headquarters’ building. Sign up they did, and she opened an office in the neighborhood. So unusual was the outreach that the New York Times covered the event. So controversial was it that he Iowa City Press covered it with the alarming headline, “Mrs. Belmont Crosses Line.”

Soon, participation in PEA fell off and Belmont closed several chapters, including theirs. Perhaps black interest faded because white backlash against Belmont’s grand racial coalition had been swift. In 1911, white supporters – “girls uptown and downtown” – balked at news she had invited African-American activists to a suffrage ball, announcing their unhappiness by deciding to “stop work on their dancing frocks.” Later that year, when eight black activists attempted to dine in a suffrage lunchroom Belmont had opened downtown, they were turned away, receiving box lunches and asked to eat elsewhere.

The gate to bi-racial cooperation had been opened. That it slammed shut soon after was a travesty, but not a surprise. Time and again, white suffragists had put their own interests ahead of racial cooperation.

My new book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, looks at this remarkable and little explored chapter in suffrage racial cooperation. The book’s theme is that these wealthy women, the media darlings of their day, covered for every excess of attire, decor and itinerary, popularized the Votes for Women campaign. Leveraging their social standing for political power, they gave cover to those who feared that the vote would harden women and emasculate men. And for a brief period during a rare time in American history, a few of them also gave cover to those who cheered for a suffrage front united across race.

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