Alva Belmont’s 1914 Conference of Great Women

“A friendly gathering of women of note whose work lies in different fields, but who feel the same big purpose inspiring them all”

by Mary Goljenboom

As I read old newspaper and magazine articles about historic women, I am always curious about who knew whom. It is a small triumph to come across a story that puts several of these historic women together. One recent triumph begins with a plate.

Written on the plate’s rim in blue script is Votes for Women . The plate is a reproduction from a set of stoneware found at Marble House, the home of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont (aka Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont). Today, Marble House is one of the mansions in Newport, RI, that is open to the public. I bought my reproduction at the gift shop. According to Professor Kenneth Florey, the original set of stoneware was made in 1913; Belmont probably had it made for her July 1914 “Conference of Great Women”.

An ardent suffragist, Alva Belmont’s conference was not only about votes for women. According to journalist Doris E. Fleischman, it was “a friendly gathering of women of note whose work lies in different fields, but who feel the same big purpose inspiring them all, to make practical the connotation of the vague term betterment.” It allowed Belmont to draw attention to issues important to her: American women’s status and accomplishments, and her own status in New York society. She liked publicity.

Belmont used the visit of her daughter, the Duchess of Marlborough (née Consuelo Vanderbilt), as the celebrity hook to assure newspaper coverage and attendance by members of New York society. The duchess was more than just a society matron; in England, her work providing help to the wives and children of men who were in prison and building hostels for young working women was respected.

Eight women shared the dais with the duchess. The ones most interesting to me all had notable careers as leaders and administrators. They worked to improve social welfare and believed that women’s suffrage improved their chances of accomplishing their goals.

Florence Kelley, the general secretary of National Consumers’ League since 1899 and leader of the organization’s efforts to abolish child labor and secure legislation for a minimum wage and an eight hour work day.

Rose Schneiderman, vice president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (later president), who, throughout her long career as a union administrator and organizer, championed working women and sought work rules and legislation to protect them.

Mary M. Bartelme, the assistant judge of the juvenile court of Cook County, IL, (later circuit court judge) whose innovative practices for dealing with girls in the justice system became a model for other juvenile courts.

Maud Ballington Booth, the co-founder of Volunteers of America and leader of its work in rehabilitating prisoners and assisting prisoners’ families.

Katharine B. Davis, the newly appointed commissioner of corrections for the city of New York, who worked to reform prisons, abolishing widespread graft and corruption.

In addition to the speakers, journalist Doris Fleischman, who covered the conference for the New York Tribune, also had a notable career. She wrote feature articles and a book about women’s careers in business and the professions, and was an executive in the public relations firm her husband founded, Edward L. Bernays.

The results of the “Conference of Great Women” were mixed. The speech by the Duchess of Marlborough was covered in newspapers across the country, as was the new Chinese Tea House on the grounds of Marble House (another hook Belmont used to get publicity). Most of the speakers were listed in articles, so they received some attention, but the duchess got most of the space. The New York Tribune gave Doris Fleischman’s coverage of the conference, which included a synopsis of each talk along with photos and an opinion piece, a full page—far more than most other publications.

The conference received publicity for its causes, but some felt Belmont had simply put on a publicity stunt. Even speakers had opinions. According to historian Sylvia D. Hoffert, Rose Schneiderman felt afterward that very little would be accomplished. “I was furious with myself for attending,” she wrote in her memoir.* Florence Kelley wrote a thank you note to Belmont full of gratitude and praise. “No one could fail to feel at the time that the audience was receptive and responsive. The editorials which have come to me from many parts of the country show the press to have been respectful and largely sympathetic. You must feel great satisfaction in having helped, on a nationwide scale . . .”**

One hundred years after the conference, the replica of the plate is a reminder of these women, whose careers as managers and administrators are usually overlooked, and of the day they stood together to publicize women’s abilities and the importance of votes for women.

 

Notes and Sources
The other speakers were: Kate M. Gordon, president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference; Helen Ring Robinson, Colorado’s first female state senator; Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and president of the Women’s Political Union.

* Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights by Sylvia D. Hoffert, p. 103

** The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-1931 edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Beverly Wilson Palmer, p. 197

Read Doris E. Fleishman’s coverage in the New York Tribune, July 12, 1914 at Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress

A reproduction cup and saucer from Alva Belmont’s Votes for Women set  are for sale at the Newport Mansions website of The Preservation Society of Newport County (scroll down towards the bottom of the page)

For more information about Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and her daughter, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, see Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s book Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt

 

Copyright 2014 Ferret Research, Inc.