Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a noted suffragist, called Marble House her “temple to the arts,” and used the house as a setting for suffrage rallies. On Thursday, August 26, there will be a free event to mark the occasion © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.
On Thursday, August 26, Marble House, on Newport’s tony Bellevue Avenue, will be the site of a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The festivities will begin at 11 a.m., and the event is free and open to the public.
Taking place on the terrace of Marble House, where Alva once hosted rallies to raise funds for the suffrage movement, the celebration will include poetry, music, and readings from historical documents. Participants will include Rhode Island State Senator June Gibbs; the state’s Poet Laureate, Lisa Starr; Amber Rose Johnson, the 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Champion from Classical High School in Providence, RI; and Lt. Colonel Jayme M. Sutton, Naval War College Military Professor of National Strategy Decision Making.
Why would a Gilded Age mansion in Newport be the scene to mark Women’s Suffrage? The House, so opulent in its architecture and decoration, was built by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, as her “temple of the arts.” But Alva was a pioneer feminist – the decorations are loaded with imagery of goddesses and feminine symbols of learning and art. She became a vigorous sponsor of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and held suffrage rallies at the House, attended by women of all classes (there are some wonderful photos and audio about them as you tour the house). Visiting the house, you can sense Alva’s frustration and longing for a society in which women had the right to pursue their talents and ambition, but in her day, the way to power was to marry wealth.
“Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was a rebel right from childhood, and despite becoming one of the leaders of Newport and New York high society, she never lost her independent spirit,” said Preservation Society CEO and Executive Director Trudy Coxe. “Alva used her position in society to raise money and lobby for the right of women to vote, so she would be very proud to see her beloved Marble House hosting this celebration today.”
“Women got the vote through struggle, by organizing themselves, talking with politicians and marching in the streets. The League of Women Voters continues the struggle by telling all that voting is the mainstay of democracy,” said Joanne DeVoe, President of the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. “We also work out consensus positions on issues and then publicize and lobby for these positions. The League thanks the Preservation Society for opening the grounds of Marble House to remember the women who were part of the struggle. Could there be a better place in Rhode Island for this celebration?”
“The example that Alva Vanderbilt Belmont set for women of her day, and the women of ours, is unmatched,” said Marcia Coné, Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. “The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island is so pleased to be a part of this important event and to celebrate her legacy.”
“Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was a force who championed the cause for the 19th Amendment’s passage. Imagine what our lives would be like today if the passage had not been won,” said Deborah L. Perry, Executive Director of YWCA Northern Rhode Island. “It is an honor for the YWCA to be part of this celebration.”
“We sometimes forget that Newport in the 19th century was a stage for more than just social entertainment, but was also a backdrop for many dramas of national consequence,” said Pieter Roos, Executive Director of the Newport Restoration Foundation. “Alva used Newport’s glamour and prestige to advance one of the most important social movements of the era, and this event will highlight that for contemporary audiences.”
Marble House was the summer cottage built for Alva Vanderbilt in 1892 to cement her place in high society. But in later life, she moved from socialite to social reformer, using Marble House as a stage from which she rallied women to the cause of equal rights. In 1921, Alva was elected President of the National Woman’s Party, and was the founder of the Political Equality League. She is credited with the original advice, “Pray to God. She will help you.”
Alva even partnered with songwriter and columnist Elsa Maxwell to write a light-hearted, one-act operatta entitled Melinda and Her Sisters to convince New York and Newport high society that the time had come to grant women equal rights. The play was performed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1916, and was re-staged by the Preservation Society at Marble House in 2003.
The Suffrage event is free and open to the public at Marble House, 596 Bellevue Avenue. Call 401-847-1000, ext. 169 or visit www.NewportMansions.org.
For more about the Women of Newport, Gilded Age Mansions and visiting Newport, visit http://www.travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate.
–Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate