By JIM ZBICK

JZBICK@TNONLINE.COM

IN 1911 ALVA ERSKINE BELMONT, A PROMINENT MULTI-MILLIONAIRE AMERICAN SOCIALITE AND A MAJOR FIGURE IN WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE MOVEMENTS, HAD A VISION TO CREATE A FARM WHERE GIRLS COULD LIVE AND WORK HARD, EARNING WAGES WHILE LEARNING HOW TO DO MAN'S WORK.

THE INTENT WAS TO GET GIRLS OUT OF THE CITY AND BACK TO A WHOLESOME ENVIRONMENT. WHEN ALVA MADE HER 200-ACRE MANSION AND GROUNDS ON LONG ISLAND AVAILABLE, OVER 200 YOUNG WOMEN IMMEDIATELY APPLIED.

THE "WOMEN FARMERS" DID GARDENING, TOOK CARE OF LAWNS, RAISED VEGETABLES AND GREW FRUITS.

"IN A YEAR OR TWO THE WOMEN WILL GO OUT QUALIFIED TO EARN A GOOD LIVING, AND, WITH THRIFT, TO BECOME OWNERS OF THEIR OWN FARMS," A NEW YORK WRITER STATED. "MRS. BELMONT IS AIMING TO REACH THE WORKING GIRLS WHO ARE TIED UP NOW IN UNPLEASANT FACTORIES DOING MONOTONOUS THINGS WITH MACHINES.

"BUT AT FIRST SHE EXPECTS TO TAKE SOME OLDER WOMEN, BECAUSE THEY WILL NATURALLY BE THE MOST EAGER FOR THE OPPORTUNITY, HAVING LESS CONCERN WITH POMPS AND VANITIES, AND ALSO BECAUSE IT WILL BE A LITTLE EASIER TO GET THINGS INTO RUNNING ORDER WITH THEM THAN WITH GIRLS."

THE WRITER DISMISSED THE IDEA THAT THE WORK WAS TOO HARD FOR WOMEN.

"I DON'T SEE THAT IT IS. IF A WOMAN CAN BEND OVER A WASHTUB ALL DAY OR CRAWL OVER FLOORS AS SHE SCRUBS THEM, SHE CAN ATTEND TO BEDS OF FLOWERS OR VEGETABLES WITH NO GREATER PHYSICAL STRAIN. IN EUROPE, OF COURSE, MUCH OF THE GARDENING IS DONE BY WOMEN. IT SIMPLY HAS NOT BEEN THE CUSTOM HERE," HE STATED.

ALVA WASN'T YOUR TYPICAL MILLIONAIRESS. AFTER HER FIRST MARRIAGE TO THE GRANDSON OF CORNELIUS VANDERBILT ENDED IN 1895, IT SHOCKED SOCIETY SINCE DIVORCE WAS RARE AMONG THE ELITE. SHE REPORTEDLY RECEIVED IN EXCESS OF $10 MILLION, IN ADDITION TO SEVERAL OF THE ESTATES, IN THE DIVORCE SETTLEMENT.

IN 1896, SHE MARRIED OLIVER HAZARD PERRY BELMONT, A FRIEND OF THE VANDERBILTS, WHO WAS THE SON OF A SUCCESSFUL JEWISH BANKER. AFTER OLIVER DIED SUDDENLY IN 1908, THE INDEPENDENT-MINDED ALVA LAUNCHED HER CAMPAIGN FOR THE WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT.

IN THE SPRING OF 1911, THE TAMAQUA COURIER STATED THAT ALVA'S "WOMEN FARMERS," WITH THEIR "BLUE BLOOMERS, BROAD BRIMMED HATS AND BOYS SHOES, WERE PROVING TO BE A MORE INTERESTING AND POPULAR ATTRACTION THAN THE STATUE OF LIBERTY OR THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

"THE ANEMIC GARMENT WORKER IN SOME STIFLING HOLE OF A FACTORY MAY REGARD THOSE OUTDOOR TOILERS WITH SCORN AS DOING WORK UNSUITED FOR THE SEX," THE LOCAL WRITER STATED. "BUT PLACE THIS SAME CHALK-FACED AND EMACIATED FACTORY WORKER BESIDE THE BROAD-BACKED POLISH WOMEN JUST OVER THE RUSSIAN PRAIRIE. THE NERVES OF THE FORMER ARE HYSTERICAL FROM THE HURRY OF THE MACHINERY AND THE MASTERSHIP OF THE BOSS. FED ON POISONED AIR IN THE WORKSHOP SHE IS BUT A SHADOW OF NORMAL PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT."

HIS NEXT LESS-FLATTERING OBSERVATION WOULD CERTAINLY HAVE RUFFLED THE WOMEN'S GROUPS OF TODAY.

"THE WOMAN FROM THE EAST ON THE CONTRARY, BROUGHT UP TO HOE AND DIG WITH HER BROTHERS, IS ROUND-FACED, RUDDY-HUED, A BIG, FULL-BLOODED, ROBUST ANIMAL. SLOW OF BRAIN, SHE IS FITTED FOR MOTHERHOOD AND HOUSEWIFERY," THE LOCAL WRITER DETERMINED.

HE POINTED AT HOW RECENT GARMENT WORKER STRIKES HAVE REVEALED THE "PIOUS SLAVERY OF MODERN INDUSTRIALIZATION, WHEN AN OVERSUPPLY OF WOMEN WORKERS IS FOUND IN ONE LOCALITY AND AT A FEW TRADES.

"IF A THOUSAND OF THESE GIRL FACTORY WORKERS IN THE CITIES COULD BE DIVERTED TO FARM LIFE, HOW INFINITELY BETTER OFF THEY WOULD BE," HE SAID. "THERE WILL ALWAYS BE WOMEN ENOUGH TO FEED THE MACHINES IN THE WORKSHOP AND THOSE WHO ARE LEFT WOULD THEN BE IN A BETTER POSITION TO NEGOTIATE FOR A LIVING WAGE."

HE WONDERED HOW MANY BELMONT FARMERETTES, HOWEVER, COULD SUCCESSFULLY MAKE THE TRANSITION FROM CITY TO FARM LIFE A LONG-TERM ONE.

"BUT WILL THE FARMERETTES BE CONTENT IN A LIFE MINUS THE GLITTER (OF THE CITY)? WILL FEEDING THE CHICKENS COMPENSATE? DID THEY STOP TO THINK THAT THERE ARE NO PICTURE SHOWS?" HE ASKED.

WITHIN A DECADE, AND THE ONSET OF WORLD WAR I, MANY WOMEN WOULD ANSWER THAT QUESTION. WHILE MEN SERVED IN THE MILITARY, THE WOMAN'S LAND ARMY WAS FORMED TO TRAIN WOMEN TO HANDLE THE AGRICULTURAL DUTIES WHILE MEN SERVED IN THE MILITARY.

THE WLA WAS NOT A GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION. IT WAS ORGANIZED AND FINANCED BY WOMEN'S ORGANIZATIONS, INCLUDING GARDENING CLUBS, SUFFRAGE SOCIETIES, WOMEN'S COLLEGES, CIVIC GROUPS, AND THE YWCA.

FROM 1917-19, ABOUT 20,000 WLA PATRIOTS WERE WORKING ON FARMS IN 25 STATES, TOILING 45-HOUR WEEKS AT 17.5 CENTS AN HOUR. THESE 'FARMERETTES' WORKED PLOWING FIELDS, DRIVING TRACTORS, PLANTING AND HARVESTING.

THE WAR SLOGAN OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT AT THAT TIME WAS "FOOD WILL WIN THE WAR," AND THAT WAS TRUE HERE AS WELL AS ABROAD. AFTER THREE YEARS OF WAR, THE PEOPLE OF EUROPE WERE ON THE BRINK OF STARVATION, AND AMERICAN FOOD SHIPMENTS WERE CRUCIAL TO OUR ALLIES.

BECAUSE OF ITS VITAL SERVICE, THE WLA WAS ABLE TO BARGAIN FOR AN EIGHT-HOUR WORK DAY AND RECEIVE PAY EQUAL TO MALE FARM LABORERS. THIS WAS NO SMALL ACHIEVEMENT IN A DAY WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T EVEN HAVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE IN FEDERAL ELECTIONS.