Wealthy Women and the Suffrage Movement
This week’s New York Times Magazine focuses on global women’s rights. The issue includes an article by Motherlode blogger Lisa Belkin entitled “The Power of the Purse.” Belkin claims that this is the first time in history that women have used their dollars to advance the cause of women:
“To appreciate the magnitude of this change, go back 150 years or so to the women’s suffrage movement. Back to when one of its leaders, Matilda Joslyn Gage, lamented: ‘We have yet to hear of a woman of wealth who has left anything for the enfranchisement of her sex. Almost every daily paper heralds the fact of some large bequest to colleges, churches and charities by rich women, but it is proverbial that they never remember the woman suffrage movement that underlies in importance all others.’”
The article focuses on Women Moving Millions, founded by Helen LaKelly Hunt and Swanee Hunt, daughters of oil magnate H. L. Hunt. Helen wrote her doctoral thesis on the origins of feminism, arguing that wealthy women sat on the sidelines during the battle for women’s suffrage:
“Women gave heart, mind, body, intellect, will, blood, sweat and tears, but not their dollars,” she says. “Women didn’t fund suffrage; now women are funding women. That’s historic.”
How could Hunt have forgotten Alva Belmont [pictured above] who was the key financial backer for both the suffrage movement and the cause of working women’s rights? Belmont not only gave loads of her own money and opened her lavish home in Newport, RI to suffrage activists, she was also a tireless fundraiser who was deft at getting other wealthy women and men to donate to her causes. Belmont also supported the more radical side of the suffrage movement, the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, later renamed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). These were the women who picketed the White House during the First World War, going so far as to compare President Wilson to the German Kaiser for refusing to grant women the right to vote. These picketers were the same ones “Jailed for Freedom,” i.e. put in prison, where they were beaten, tortured, and lived under horrible conditions. Their story is nicely portrayed in the HBO film, “Iron-Jawed Angels.” Once the suffrage battle was won, the NWP went on to promote the Equal Rights Amendment, a move that was controversial even among many former women’s suffrage supporters.
Of course, there are other wealthy women who supported women’s rights — see the National Women’s History Project — and don’t forget to celebrate Women’s Equality Day, commemorating passage of the 20th amendment granting women the right to vote, on August 26th.