Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont had acquired great wealth by defying social norms and divorcing her philandering first husband William Vanderbilt. In the spring of 1909, she was in London as the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Association convention. While there, she attended an event where Emmeline Pankhurst and six other suffragettes who had just been released from prison were awarded the Holloway Prison Medal. “Such electric fervor I had never see nor felt in all my experience,” Belmont later wrote, “I was exalted.”
She returned home “invigorated and determined to enliven the fight for the vote.” In the fall of 1909, she founded the Political Equality Association (PEA) in New York City with branch offices in various locations where working women could attend suffrage lectures. Wanting to include black women in PEA, Alva Belmont met with several prominent black women and arranged a meeting at a black church. She told the gathering—”I feel that unless this cause means freedom and equal rights to all women, of every race, of every creed, rich or poor, its doctrines are worthless and it must fail.” Newspapers around the country noted the event. INVITES NEGROES TO JOIN read the headline in a Topeka, Kansas, newspaper, The Topeka Daily State Journal, February 7, 1910.
The top image labeled “Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont” illustrated an article about Belmont founding PEA in a Grand Fork, North Dakota, newspaper, The Evening Times, November 3, 1909. (The O. H. P. are the initials of her deceased, wealthy second husband’s name, Oliver Hazard Perry.) The middle image is a newspaper article headlined MRS. O. H. P. BELMONT ERASES COLOR LINE that appeared on the front page of The San Francisco Call, February 6, 1910. The bottom image of a film crew in a mausoleum dates back to 1995 and a television special, “Honoring American Heroines,” about my photography of women’s graves. (A three
I had read that Alva Belmont had been buried in the magnificent Belmont mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City with a purple, white, and gold banner of the National Woman’s Party. To satisfy my intense curiosity, the producer convinced the director of Woodlawn to open the mausoleum for the first time since Alva Belmont’s burial in 1933. It was a sacred experience to walk into the beautiful interior and see, abeit, faded and frayed, the banner of women’s fierce fight at the head of Alva Belmont’s marble catafalque. (Click on images to enlarge them.)