24 5 / 2011

Votes for all women, but other rights for only some

My mom and I took a little road trip to Rhode Island this weekend, and one of the things we did was tour a few of Newport’s totally over-the-top mansions. I suggested we stay Newport in the first place because I figured my mom would dig the big crazy houses (she did), but I was kind of expecting to spend the house-tour time rolling my eyes at the ridiculous excesses of the robber barons. And I did do that. I mean, one of these houses cost $11 million — in 1892 dollars. One of them had panels of fucking platinum in the walls. (The conservators were all like, “How come this silver leaf never tarnishes? Ohhh.”) Pretty much every other surface was covered in gold leaf or was made of solid gold or marble. The stairs were designed for walking in ball gowns. AND THESE WERE PEOPLE’S SUMMER HOMES. They called them cottages, actually. Cottages that had staffs of 40+ people, and where the linens were changed at least two times each day.

Alva Vanderbilt, the lady with the $11 million house, got the place as a birthday gift from her husband, but she only lived there for three summers; then she got divorced and re-married and moved to an even more outrageous place down the block. But while she did live there, she held a bunch of women’s suffrage rallies, which were attended by women of all classes. And this is where I have to give big props to the people who wrote this house tour, because they appropriately acknowledged Alva’s significance in the suffrage fight, which she seemed to be genuinely passionate about, while not letting her off the hook for being complicit in the exploitation of the low-income, immigrant women she employed. At one point, the tour takes you to the scullery maid’s room, where the guide pointed out, “You have to wonder how the maid felt after one of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s rallies, as she was washing her 200th piece of ‘Votes for Women’ china.”

Also interesting (I thought) was that Alva forced her daughter, Consuelo, to marry European royalty against her will — about the most hypocritical thing a “feminist” could do, especially since Alva had gotten divorced so she could marry for love herself. Not only that, but Alva’s divorce was a first among couples of the Vanderbilts’ social standing, and she went through with it explicitly to make a point that women didn’t need to stay in marriages for money. But of course it matters that Alva didn’t leave her husband for just anybody; she left him for another rich guy down the street. And she kept her daughter “imprisoned” in her bedroom (Conseuelo’s words), unable to see the man she actually wanted to marry, because Alva recognized that women were starting to gain rights — but she believed that the only way to access those rights, at the time, was to be a woman of wealth and privilege. Though misguided, Alva believed she was securing more freedoms for her daughter by forcing her into a loveless, money marriage.

In the end, Consuelo endured twenty-some-odd “years of solitude” before seeking a divorce and remarrying for love. (Alva testified during the divorce proceedings, confirming that she had forced her daughter into the marriage.) So, ya know, good for her.

And despite my “screw the tourist bullshit” policy towards gift shops, I bought a knock-off Alva Vanderbilt mug to remind myself about these women, and all the ways things have — and haven’t — changed in the decades since they lived.

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