When there’s a charitable or political cause, there’s often a celebrity who has taken it up. Elizabeth Taylor was a tireless campaigner to fight AIDS. More recently, Mark Ruffalo has used his fame to try to stop fracking, and Angelina Jolie has advocated on behalf of refugees. Appearance matters: When well-known people attempt use their prominence for good, it can elevate a cause in a way that money or grassroots activism can’t always muster.
How did it come to be natural for celebrities to lend such support? And when was it proven that a famous face could help make a movement successful? According to Johanna Neuman, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, it goes back to the women’s suffrage movement. In researching her recent book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, Neuman dug through archives and discovered that the decades-long battle to pass the 19th Amendment wasn’t all Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt: There was also a vital assist from a generation of New York socialites who both funded the movement and lent their celebrity to the cause at a time when it needed the attention.
These women were celebrities—the Kim Kardashians of their day—but are now remembered by few. I spoke with Neuman recently, and asked her how the story of these all-but-forgotten women can illuminate the relationship between traditional activists and the donors they need to accomplish their work. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Helaine Olen: When did you realize these women were worthy of a book?
Johanna Neuman: I knew immediately. They were the media celebrities of their day. They’re the wives and daughters of the Gilded Age, and what was so striking to me is that these uber-wealthy women didn’t have to do anything: Their social standing was firm, they were all listed in the Social Register. They chose to get involved in politics. They chose to leverage their social standing for political gains. And to me this made them so compelling.
Olen: So if they were originally socialites, how did they get their start in the suffragist movement?
Neuman: The first generation of the gilded suffragists comes around 1894, when the state of New York is considering a constitutional amendment to include women’s rights. And Susan B. Anthony comes to five women of substance and money and she asks them for a donation, so that she can fund the canvassing that’s required to produce a huge petition. And they say no. It’s not that they don’t want to give their money to the cause—it’s that they also want to give their time. It’s the moment when they come into their own. They have something to say.
Olen: Why did they think they should take over the cause of longtime activists?
Neuman: These women were executives. They ran staffs. They were in charge of huge mansions. They directed architects and builders and decorators. They were accustomed to running things, and when they got into suffrage, they really for the most part were not interested in joining the other organizations. They had the money and they had the experience to run their own organizations. And also they were accustomed to seeing their names in the paper and they wanted that too.
The understanding that suffrage could be sold to the public had been missing from the movement. The understanding that it had to be branded and packaged like a consumer good is something they brought. It’s an understanding that appearance matters.
These women were expanding the circle of people who paid attention—they were reaching out to people who were indifferent to the topic, who hadn’t considered it before. If you think about Angelina Jolie becoming a special envoy for the United Nations, for refugees, it gives that cause a spring in its step. People notice it, people take notice of it, and people get involved in it. So the book is also a meditation on celebrity endorsement.
Olen: When these women, with their money and celebrity, established their presence, how much tension did this lead to in the existing movement to get women the right to vote?
Neuman: “Considerable” is the only real answer, right? The movement had been peopled by middle-class, civically minded women for a long, long time. And they resented all the attention these women were getting in the press.
Olen: This brings us to Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. If she’s remembered today at all, it’s for forcing her daughter Consuelo to marry into the British aristocracy, something few of us today would view as acceptable gender politics. But your book reveals that she was very deliberately recruited into the suffragist movement.
Neuman: The head of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Anna Howard Shaw, thinks Alva could be a source of money. And so she recruits her to be a delegate to an international conference on women’s suffrage. It electrifies Alva. She has some ideas, and she uses her money, her standing, and her position.
The first thing Alva does is open the gates of her summer home, Marble House, in Newport, to the public for the first time, with all proceeds benefiting the organization, and it just commands enormous attention. She gives speeches and she launches herself as a figure in the movement. She comes in at the top. And I suppose this should not surprise us. Right? Because that’s where these women were accustomed to being.
But some people were very angry when Alva Belmont forced the National American Woman Suffrage Association to move its headquarters to New York from Ohio. She had the money to say, “I will pay your rent for a year. I will pay the salary of a press agent for a year.” For an organization that’s strong in numbers but often poor, this is a no-brainer. But a lot of people resented it.
Olen: But she ultimately leaves the organization, right?
Neuman: Yes, after a couple of years, she is frustrated by it. She is willing to give buckets of money, but she wants action and she’s tired of the plodding and the cautiousness and the infighting that's hobbling this organization. So Alva is recruited by Alice Paul, the head of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Alice Paul is young and more radical than the more traditional suffragists. Alva is interested in funding her, provided she gets a leadership role.
Olen: You mentioned Angelina Jolie earlier. How are women like Belmont similar to today’s celebrities?
Neuman: Well, I mentioned her because I thought it would help people understand that celebrity endorsement is not just a stamp, or a name, but these women, I suppose I would say, were the first to stand with the cause as political actors.
What was fascinating about these women is that they were the first to not just put their money behind a political cause. Traditional philanthropy for wealthy women was to help a hospital or school. The gilded suffragists, they used their money for politics but they also stood with politics. They wanted to organize. They wanted to rally. They wanted to march in the streets.
Before these women entered the political landscape, the campaign to win women the right to vote was in the doldrums. Events were not well attended. Tired conventions that attracted the same crowd every year featured familiar refrains to a chorus of the already converted.
Then imagine the impact these fashionable, feminine, prominent socialites had on the debate. With their social standing, they gave cover to activists—both male and female—who wanted to join but had been reluctant to face ridicule from colleagues or neighbors. With the enormous publicity they received, they brought excitement to a campaign that had been withering.
How often have celebrities today given cover to the reluctant to join a cause, or forced the press to at least give a modicum of respect to an issue? In giving their blessings to a cause that was controversial, these women ensured that suffrage would be treated seriously.
Olen: So, after all this work, the 19th Amendment passes, and these women are soon forgotten, despite the fact that their money and efforts helped make it possible. Why?
Neuman: I think there are two possible explanations. One is that there is a lot of score-settling by suffrage leaders who resented them and left them out of their memoirs. Carrie Chapman Catt did not mention Alva anywhere in her memoirs and Alva supported her organization for a number of years.
Second, when it comes to philanthropy and philanthropists, I think it’s easy to dismiss the wealthy. Many commentators certainly did dismiss these women. They said of them that they were just indulging in suffrage as they would the latest fashion—that they didn’t take seriously. I think that is the risk of money, the risk of philanthropy. You can contribute financially to a cause and nobody really wants you to get involved. These women sort of insisted on it.