EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

The Return of Gilded Feminism?

Alva Belmont vs. the Glam-SAHMs

Socialite-turned-suffragist Alva Belmont (1853-1933), née Smith, might have recognized her younger self in the “Glam-SAHMs” (stay-at-home-moms) described in Wednesday Martin’s attention-grabbing, pop-anthropology memoir of Upper East Side wives and mothers, Primates of Park Avenue.

After all, Belmont was in some ways the original Manhattan Glam-SAHM. She certainly enjoyed the historical equivalent of a “wife bonus,” not to mention “ex-wife” and “widow bonuses” to boot. William K. Vanderbilt, whom she married in 1875, gave her millions to spend as she wished during their marriage; upon their divorce in 1895, he paid her millions more. Her second husband, O.H.P. Belmont of the Belmont banking family, left her another fortune and a stately Newport home when he died in 1908.

Like Martin’s Glam-SAHMs, Belmont also devoted decades of her life (and outrageous sums of money) to ostentatious balls, bespoke gowns, and palatial mansions, famously surpassing Caroline Astor as the reigning queen of New York society by 1883. With an outfit like hers, who needs a Birkin bag?

Yet Belmont would have reviled the notion — touted recently as “feminist” by self-identified Glam-SAHM, Polly Phillips, in the New York Post — of a “wife bonus” as “the nod from a happy boss for a job well done.” Such metaphorical acceptance, or indeed, celebration of husbands as bosses and wives as subordinates was anathema to her.

“There is no more subtle and pernicious form of slavery in the world than the subjection of women to men,” Belmont declared in the first lines of her co-written manuscript autobiography, prepared in 1920. It was “the more degrading,” she wrote, “because women have not realized the extent of their slavery.” As she grew older, Belmont not only realized but confronted that “slavery” with increasing vigor and radicalism, in private and public life.

Society ladies did not divorce their adulterous husbands in the 1890s. Defying her own lawyer’s objections and endangering her social position through scandal, Belmont did.

Wealthy white women, especially those from the South (Belmont was born into a slaveholding household in antebellum Mobile, Alabama), did not make common cause with immigrant and African-American women for workplace and political rights. But in 1909 Belmont joined striking immigrant garment workers on picket lines, and stood their bail in court. Regarding the mainstream women’s suffrage movement as too elitist and timid, she founded and funded her own group, the Political Equality Association (P.E.A.), and recruited black women to join.

And Belmont was not the only Gilded Age doyenne engaging in advocacy for women’s and workers’ political and industrial rights. Olivia Sage, Louisine Havemeyer, and other female relations of industrialists or financiers made contributions as well. Sometimes such ladies even neared the edge of identifying how capitalism’s operations transformed other women’s suffering into their own comfort. At a 1908 meeting of wealthy women hosted by J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne in her father’s Madison Avenue home, shipping heiress and banker’s wife Florence Jaffray “Daisy” Harriman reasoned:

[S]ome of us are the wives or sisters of employers of large numbers of factory operatives, or perhaps ourselves are owners and stockholders in companies. Should not the woman who spends the money which the employees help to provide, take a special interest in their welfare, especially in that of the women wage earners?

Harriman hardly questioned her own right to spend that money, nor did her invocation of “factory operatives” disturb the idea of work outside the home as somehow more worthy of protection and compensation than work within it (many women at the meeting, after all, had armies of female household servants). Harriman, Morgan, and women like them recoiled from a true socialist leveling, or as Morgan put it, from “tear[ing] down all the good as well as the bad of our present social state.” Still, they at least reckoned with their material connection to women outside their homes and social worlds.

For Belmont, though, philanthropy no longer sufficed; she had little interest in ministering to women wage earners as a Lady Bountiful. Having taken inspiration from the militant public actions of British suffragettes she witnessed during a visit to England in 1909, she wanted to enlist them in a liberatory, collective, feminist struggle. She recognized in their exploitation not just their vulnerability as workers, but as women. She saw in their disempowerment not a burdensome responsibility, but a radicalizing reflection — undeniably different in class and racial terms, and far more extreme in the brutality and intensity of its oppression, but nevertheless a reflection — of her own.

She also saw in their numbers and unrest the potential for power.

Belmont had no wish to sacrifice an iota of her class or race privilege. Nevertheless, she had the courage that many of her contemporaries lacked to reach across class and racial lines in an attempt to build real power for women. That courage lent her insight, captured in a February 1910 address on women’s suffrage to the African-American congregants of Mount Olivet Baptist Church on West 52nd Street:

I … come here today because I know 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 in its achievements.

Fail in its achievements. That paradoxical phrase captures the limits of the “feminism” to which Polly Phillips subscribes. Few if any of Martin’s Glam-SAHMs have known a day without the achievements of the collective feminist struggle that Belmont — and millions of working women — helped build and sustain, over decades and in the face of unrelenting opposition: improved educational access, the vote, antidiscrimination laws, and more. But instead of mobilizing their considerable resources to broaden that struggle in a world where all women continue to be disproportionately undereducated, underrepresented, and undercompensated for their labor, Glam-SAHMs (if Martin can be believed) seem to be laying down the achievements of their forebears in tribute to the patriarchal family ideal, jealously protecting and advancing their exclusivity.

In the meantime, ordinary working women continue their day-to-day battles to gain recognition and respect for their labor, not only in offices, factories, and retail stores, but in homes as well: as wives, mothers, daughters, cooks, au pairs, cleaners, home-care assistants, personal health aides, and more.

What might be possible if Glam-SAHMs joined in a collective movement with such women? What might they achieve if they could organize across boundaries of race and class as Belmont tried to do — and across categories of work within and without the home, as Belmont did not?

Social Security benefits for the overwhelmingly female labor of social reproduction in which they are all engaged? Universal, government-subsidized childcare? Paid maternity leave guaranteed by the state, a bar so low that the U.S. remains the only OECD nation without it?

Who knows? Upper East Side Glam-SAHMs might find themselves fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with immigrant and non-white women for enforceable labor rights, funding their protests, and bankrolling their political organizations, testing the boundaries of women’s solidarity anew.

Stranger things have happened.

David Huyssen

  • chiara bottici

    nice take on a controversial book

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