Headquarters for women's equality
By Jessica Goldstein
Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011
The Sewall-Belmont House and Museum
, a brick building from which the Capitol easily can be seen, was the National Woman's Party's fifth and final headquarters. The NWP moved to the house in 1929, and it is there, in that very spot, that Alice Paul and her women-in-arms worked on the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition to providing a narrative of women's struggle for equality in the early 1900s, the museum pays tribute to modern-day women who have picked up the fight where their predecessors left off. Sewall-Belmont holds the most complete collection of suffragist artifacts in the United States.
Fighting Quaker Alice Paul was a Quaker from New Jersey who started the National Woman's Party (NWP). She fought for suffrage from 1913 to 1920, when U.S. women finally won the right to vote. She helped draft the Equal Rights Amendment and in 1938 founded the World Woman's Party. Paul was one of the most strategic members of the NWP; she ensured every public outing would look good in photographs by encouraging attention-worthy costumes and charged language on banners so as to increase media attention to their cause.
We can work it out
The NWP was the first organization to picket outside the White House. Although members usually protested from Monday to Friday, they held a special Sunday picket so working women could participate. In order to keep the protests interesting enough to merit newspaper coverage, the NWP held theme days - College Day, Bastille Day - and women dressed according to the topic.
March on Washington
During President Wilson's 1913 inauguration, women of the NWP held a march from the Capitol to the White House. Five thousand women participated. En route to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the protesters were attacked by onlookers in town for Wilson's inauguration. About 100 people were hospitalized.
Lock it up
Female protesters who were arrested found themselves imprisoned in the District Jail, which had been previously condemned for wretched conditions. Alice Paul was held in solitary confinement (for obstructing traffic) and was denied visits from her family. Women who went on hunger strikes were force-fed, a punishment that, when discovered by the press, garnered more sympathy and support for the NWP. Between 1917 and 1919, about 500 women were arrested - all for that same charge of "traffic obstruction" - and 168 served prison sentences ranging from three days to six months.
Among the artifacts in the house are Susan B. Anthony's desk and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's chair. Original textiles from the early 1900s are also on display, including a "Votes for women" sash from 1913, and banners bearing such sentiments as "The young are at the gates" and "Working women need the vote." By the time WWI began, the NWP had amped up the rhetoric of their campaigns to match the loaded language of wartime propaganda, with posters declaring: "Mr. President: It is unjust to deny women a voice in their government when the government is conscripting their sons."
See what's in store
Swing by the gift shop on your way out to pick up some suffrage soap (emblazoned with "equal suffrage means clean politics" ) for your favorite feminist, or grab some office supplies: pencils with "smart women keep in touch" scripted on the side, erasers that read "smart women make changes" and stickers that declare, of course, "smart women stick together."