"Hoffert sheds a bright light on the life of the imperious, irascible, opinionated Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. The author posits that Belmont was an unlikely champion of women’s rights and that her work was crucial to the success of women’s rights. Belmont’s money and political connections benefitted women’s causes; her social and celebrity status brought press attention and additional financial support." —CCWH Newsletter
"Meir’s book provides a broad history of Jewish Kiev in the half-century between the loosening of residence restrictions and the outbreak of the First World War, and gives an exceptionally rich portrait of the complex and changing nature of Kiev’s Jewish community." —Revolutionary Russia
As a New York socialite, Alva was known to be domineering, temperamental, and opinionated. In the later half of her life, she converted to feminism and became the most generous donor to the National Woman's Party.
I talked with Professor Hoffert about the history of the women's rights, how issues have changed (or, how they haven't), and how Alva became a remarkable promoter of the women's social movement.
This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment.” In your personal experience and professional studies, how have you seen women’s education change?
The changes have been dramatic. When I applied for admission to college in 1961, many elite colleges including the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, and the Ivy League schools did not admit women as undergraduates. Now they all do.
One of the accomplishments of second wave feminism was to force the introduction of courses about women across the liberal arts curriculum—in such fields as history, sociology, anthropology, communication, political science. ... And female scholars created programs and departments in women’s studies... Essentially there was a re-evaluation of what constituted an appropriate focus of study. The result was an inclusiveness that was unprecedented.
That is not to say that those changes came easily or that women were treated well when they invaded what had previously been almost exclusively male professional space. ...Remember, if you will, that within the last ten years Larry Summers, President of Harvard University, was fired partly because he publicly denigrated the ability of women to excel in science.
Continuing with this year's theme, do you believe that women's empowerment is a direct result of education? How else can young women feel empowered?
The only way for women to achieve power in American society is through education and organization. Education provides them the intellectual tools they need to identify the structural barriers that prevent women from achieving justice and equality and from controlling their own bodies and lives. Organizing provides them with the strength in numbers needed to challenge those structural barriers and destroy them.
How has the women's rights movement progressed in the past century?
Originally, feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton had a fairly broad agenda for improving the status of women in the United States. The Declaration of Sentiments signed at the 1848 Seneca Falls [New York] Woman’s Rights Convention contained provisions for advancing the status of American women in all aspects of economic, social, political, legal, and religious life. By the time Alva Belmont became a feminist in the early twentieth century the agenda had been reduced to the right to vote.
What issues should modern-day feminists pay attention to?
The issues haven’t changed much. At all levels of society and in all aspects of economic, political, and religious life, women are still second class citizens. Many women are still denied the right to control their bodies. Many women are still the victims of abuse. Many women and their children still don’t have adequate health care. Women are still underrepresented in male dominated fields such as engineering, chemistry, and physics. Most women still make less money than most men. Fortune 500 companies still do not typically appoint women to be their CEOs or to serve on their boards of directors. There are still denominations that refuse to allow women to become full-fledged ministers. Only a few members of congress are female. I could go on and on.
In your book, you discuss how all biographies have a sense of autobiography to them, since the biographer reads their subject’s life through their own lens of personal experiences. Could you expand on this?
It is impossible to spend the time necessary to write a biography and not develop some sort of personal relationship with the subject of your work. You may end up liking or disliking that individual. You may respect or not respect what they did and approve or not approve of the way they did it. It takes years to do the research for a biography and then write it. By the time you have finished, you have an opinion about such matters.
The point I was trying to make is that we inevitably see the world through our own lens and interpret the actions of others through our own experience. Thus the issue is not whether what we write is true but whether our representation of the life of someone else is based solidly on the evidence available to us. That’s as close to the truth as we are ever going to get.
In addition to her generous financial support to the women’s suffrage movement, Alva’s celebrity status was an important part of the social campaign’s success. Would those donations have been as impactful without Alva’s socialite reputation?
Money, and lots of it, always has an impact whether or not it is attached to a celebrity. Alva’s celebrity was important to the woman’s rights movement because it served as an incredibly important form of free advertising. She was a public relations executive’s dream.
Finally, what words of wisdom do you have for the future generations? Or, what do you suppose Alva would say if she saw the world today?
As for words of wisdom—never assume that women will gain and then maintain their rights without a struggle. There has always been and will continue to be a backlash against women’s progress that is supported and organized by those whose interests are served by women’s subordination.
I think Alva would still support women’s rights and be willing to give money to women’s causes. And, given her incredible ego, I think she would still be trying to take credit for the advances that women have been able to gain for themselves.
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"[This book] is an intricately woven composition ... Those interested in urban history, the use of philanthropy to create new institutional forms and create opportunities for larger audiences, and the ease with which ideas cross national boundaries to influence decision making in other countries will find this volume informative and thought provoking." —Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly
"[A] timely and important contribution to understanding the role of nonprofits and foundations in globalization. ... It deserves careful attention by anyone interested in the globalization and civil society." —Social Service Review
Congratulations to Bill Cook, who is the winner of a 2010 Horatio Alger Award! He will be inducted into the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans during the association's award ceremonies, which take place in Washington, D.C. from today through April 10.
The award was given to the Bloomington businessman and richest man in
Indiana to recognize his achievement from humble beginnings and his efforts