Belle Baruch was born at the turn of the twentieth century, during an era when people were still struggling with the lasting ideals of the Cult of True Womanhood; women were viewed as the submissive and demure defenders of the home and denied many human rights, including the right to vote. Belle’s very existence stood in stark contrast to societal expectations of femininity. Standing at an intimidating 6’ 2”, she was a woman ahead of her time who defied gender norms with more than her physical characteristics. She excelled at traditionally masculine sports, out-riding and out-hunting most male competitors. She joined the Women’s Radio Corps in World War I, and organized the first ever radio address made by a president in American history. When the chance came to join the Women’s Suffrage Movement and help secure women’s right to vote, it’s no surprise Belle Baruch got involved.
Women had been fighting for the right to vote since the iconic Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. But the suffrage movement has a much longer history, with origins in the temperance and abolition movements of the early 1800s. Serving as the primary catalysts for early advocates of women’s rights, these causes allowed women to play political roles within the public sphere, positions that were previously denied them. This experience was pivotal for early advocates of women’s rights, leading to the gradual acceptance of women as public speakers, and providing women with valuable political knowledge and experience. The Declaration of Sentiments that emerged from the Women’s Rights Convention outlined the rights that American women should be entitled to as citizens, marking the beginning of a 72 year- long battle for a woman’s right to vote.
Ironically, women’s rights later became a cause for division within the suffrage and abolitionist movements. Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments. They were not against black suffrage, but they objected to granting suffrage to black men while ignoring the voting rights of women. This disagreement led to the creation of two separate women’s suffrage organizations; the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
The women’s suffrage movement was re-united under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, who was elected president of the NWSA in 1900. Catt focused the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement by targeting local, state and national governments, ensuring that every political official had to address the issue. When the Great War broke out across Europe, Catt worked in support of President Wilson, publicly backing him when the US entered the War, and encouraging American women to support war efforts.
After the end of the War in 1918, President Wilson recognized the contributions of women to the war effort. He declared his support for the 19th Amendment in a speech to the Senate on September 30th, but he was unable to secure the votes needed and the amendment failed. However, the 1918 election shifted the balance of power in favor of women’s suffrage, and in 1919 a new Congress brought an increase in the ranks of the amendment’s supporters. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and women won the right to vote at long last.
Like Carrie Chapman Catt, Belle Baruch worked publicly in support of World War I and President Wilson. During the war, Belle volunteered with the Red Cross and joined the Women’s Radio Corps, where she trained air crews and pilots in the use of Morse code. As one of many American women who served in the military for the first time in an official capacity, Belle experienced an awakening during World War I. She was exposed to the nation’s top political leaders through her father, and witnessed the war’s destruction across the French countryside in 1919. At the conclusion of the war, she became involved in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, working alongside her close friend, Evangeline Johnson. In one particularly bold and public form of dissent, Belle and Evangeline distributed leaflets over a busy beach in protest of conservative and restrictive fashion trends. They were ecstatic when the 19th Amendment was passed.
Belle’s grandmother, Isabelle Wolfe Baruch, was one of many people who opposed the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The Anti-Suffrage campaign maintained a significant level of support from both men and women throughout the struggle for women’s right to vote. Female supporters of the Anti-Suffrage movement were generally women of wealth, privilege, and social status – like Isabelle Wolfe Baruch – who had thrived under the existing political system, and had an incentive to preserve the system that continued to privilege them.
Corrine McConnaughy, author of The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment, argues that anti-suffragists, particularly female anti-suffragists, feared the consequences of societal disruptions from the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
“What women anti-suffragists produced to appeal to ‘ordinary’ women more broadly, was a logic of suffrage as a threat to femininity… to the protection of the value of domestic life – most notably to the vocation of motherhood, and to a loss of the privileges of womanhood.”
– “American Women Who Were Anti-Suffragettes,” Linton Weeks
Influenced by Bernard Baruch’s work with Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Belle passionately supported the US joining the League of Nations. She was dismayed by the negative response from Congress, and she and Evangeline Johnson urged President Wilson to appeal to the nation on the radio, something no president had done before. Belle and Evangeline believed that a radio address from Wilson, pleading his case for support of the League of Nations, would jolt the country from its isolationist sentiments. Distrustful of the new form of mass communication, President Wilson was reluctant at first, but was quickly swayed by the young women’s enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Wilson lost his battle to gain support for the treaty, and Congress refused to join the League of Nations.
Belle Baruch’s wealth and her father’s status granted her opportunities few women experienced during this era, but she was an innovator in her own right. In the spring of 1926 she moved to France, where she would break barriers for female athletes from atop horseback. Her talent as an equestrian was quickly discovered by the well-known trainer Paul Larregain during a fox hunt in the Pyrenees. Larregain trained Belle in show jumping, and by 1928 she was ready to compete, but the American Embassy refused to let a woman represent the the US cavalry team. Undeterred, Belle obtained a French gentleman rider’s license and began winning competitions across Europe. In a sport that was open to very few women at the time, Belle Baruch proved that women were just as capable of competing, and winning, as men.
It has recently been revealed that Belle continued to support women’s rights throughout her life. Students from Francis Marion University doing research at Bellefield, Belle’s home at Hobcaw Barony, have discovered Belle’s old checkbooks and hundreds of copies of receipts, including records of donations made to Planned Parenthood dating back to 1960. Despite the modern political controversy associated with the organization, Planned Parenthood has played a prominent role in the history of women’s reproductive rights since 1916, when its founder, Margaret Sanger, opened the nation’s first birth control clinic. By the 1960’s – the period of Belle’s donations – Planned Parenthood was a powerful voice for Second Wave Feminism and the 1960’s Women’s Rights Movement. As the documents in Belle’s house continue to be inventoried and processed, it is possible a longer record of donations to Planned Parenthood may be found, dating farther back than 1960.
Throughout her life, Belle Baruch consistently defied restrictive gender norms and stereotypes. She was a woman ahead of her time, and considering all of her achievements, it is hard not to consider her a feminist icon. Her wealth and status gave her a level of flexibility and opportunity that most women did not experience, but regardless, she broke barriers for women everywhere.
“She crossed all boundaries – international, gender, sexual – and I think that’s one of the things we find intriguing with her, especially doing it in the time she did… I don’t know if she would have liked to have been considered a pioneer or a trailblazer, but in retrospect we can certainly look back and claim her.” – Harlan Greene, SCETV interview
For Further Reading:
The Women’s Rights Movement: Moving Toward Equality by Shane Mountjoy
Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights by Ellen Carol DuBois
Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life by Jacqueline Van Voris
The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment by Corrine McConnaughy
Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg