To be honest, when I hear the word “socialite,” I shudder a little. My mind conjures images of Hiltons and Kardashians, wealthy women who have only really contributed sex tapes and guilty-pleasure reality shows to our culture.
But 160 years ago, socialites were totally different.
Socialite and suffragette Alva Belmont was born 160 years ago on Jan. 17, 1853. Belmont’s father, Murray Forbes Smith, was a successful cotton broker who made his money offering raw cotton to spinners and cotton users. The users and sellers signed a contract, ensuring that the textile makers would receive the cotton by a certain date in the future. Just like a modern-day stockbroker, cotton brokers were upper-class citizens in a risky business.
Using the same sixth sense that gave him wealth, Smith moved north to New York City shortly before the beginning of the American Civil War. After spending four years in Europe, the family returned to New York with fewer prospects.
During that time, Belmont became an adamant young lady determined to marry a rich man. With the assistance of Consuelo Yznaga, a Cuban socialite who grew up alongside Belmont, the Southern heiress was introduced to one of Yznaga’s acquaintances: William Kissam Vanderbilt.
In 19th century America, the Vanderbilts were the wealthiest family around. William was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping tycoon who was one of the richest people of all time.
Within a year of their introduction, Belmont and Vanderbilt were married. However, the restoration of Belmont’s family’s social status did not guarantee a happy marriage. Belmont’s spiritedness wore on the relaxed Vanderbilt and the pair split two decades later in an era where divorce was shocking and scandalous.
In 1896, Belmont married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a man five years her junior with a keen interest in horseracing. This more compatible union ended upon her second husband’s death in 1908.
Belmont channeled her grief into earning the right to vote, after being introduced to the women’s suffrage movement by Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Belmont established a settlement house focused on teaching marginalized African-American women about suffrage and led a congressional union devoted to passing the 19th Amendment. She led hunger strikes, and once women could finally cast ballots, she insisted that her followers would not vote until men began to abandon political parties.
Unlike today’s best-known heiresses, Belmont made a significant difference in the world. She managed to retain her social standing after divorcing her first husband, and she was determined to influence the European noblemen to marry her daughter. Belmont was an admirable, trailblazing woman who was far ahead of her time.
Moriah Krawec is a freshman studying journalism at Ohio University and a columnist for The Post. Should modern socialites use their fame for good? Email Moriah at firstname.lastname@example.org.