Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Last Sunday I went on a quick road trip (thanks to E and G!) to Newport, RI to visit mansions. This is a picture I took of a house called "The Breakers."
What struck me as most marvelous was the story of Alva Vanderbilt (later Belmont). A fierce suffragette, pioneer for the rights of women, divorcee, and terribly controlling person, she seemed to break nearly every stereotype and gender role she was given. Including the "nice" ones like nurturing mother. I was in awe of the strange juxtaposition involved in her material excess and defense of justice. She had a huge tea party, with special "Votes for Women" china, in order to bring attention to the cause at her Marble House estate in Newport. As far as I can tell, the women's suffrage movement in general was a rather high-class affair, and it's somehow a much more complex issue when faced with the idiosyncratic personal works of someone like Alva than it is in the history books. For Alva, women's suffrage was of the utmost importance, yes, but one of the ways she sought to secure it was through incredibly lavish parties that necessitated 40-50 servants, whom she tended to treat rather poorly. She forbade her daughter from marrying the man she loved, and kept her under house arrest until she agreed to marry the Duke of Alva's choosing. Fascinating, in light of all she'd said and written regarding women's rights and abilities to lead their "own" lives.
I'm tempted to introduce Alva to my class as an example of the twisted, complex notions we have of morality in historical hindsight. "Thomas Jefferson owned slaves," they like to say, with a kind of superiority that is meant to undermine all history they've ever been taught. I wish they'd simply been taught that Jefferson owned slaves from the beginning, so that these quaint ideas of "progress" and "development" and "good men" and "bad men" are revealed as the childish cultural myths they really are, and we could all settle in and get down to the real business of teasing out the complexities of historical acts.
Anyway, I almost bought a "Votes for Women" teacup for my mother, who, I think, would have actually ended up totally bored during these mansion tours except for the Alva bits. As fascinated as I am with demonstrations of opulence, the roomful of Vanderbilt's yahting trophies seem much less important than that blue and white china and the myriad cultural meanings it now holds. I ended up not buying the teacup--while Alva may have felt vindicated by their being priced at $21.95, I decided it was better to write about them for free.