“They would pin to your shoulder, and the star would glitter,” she said.
The pin and ribbon had been harnessed more than 100 years ago in the fight by American women to secure a public voice and, finally, in 1920 the right to vote. Now they were being donated to the government, along with hundreds of thousands of other artifacts from the early women’s rights movement.
The National Woman’s Party said earlier this month that it was donating a large collection of artifacts, many from the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, to the Library of Congress and the National Park Service.
The monument, a 220-year-old Federal-style brick mansion at 144 Constitution Ave. NE, has been home to the party since 1929, and the repository of memorabilia from the early struggle for women’s rights.
The artifacts are “the materials that the National Woman’s Party and its predecessor organization, the Congressional Union, assembled as their work, as part of how they demonstrated, how they fought for women’s rights,” said Hammerstrom, the site’s collections manager.
“There are hundreds of banners and dozens of sashes, flags, all kinds of things,” she said. “I have lost contact of how many boxes I have processed. … I think it’s 16 or 17 pallets of material that was gifted to the Library of Congress, doubling the size of their collection.”
The library already holds many of the party’s papers, but the donation will add 310,000 documents, 100 scrapbooks, 4,500 photographs, 750 volumes of periodicals and 2,400 books, dating back to the 1860s.
“Some parts of the collection are very fragile,” said Elizabeth Novara, the American women’s history specialist in the library’s manuscript division. “It’s over a hundred years old, some portions of it.”
Much of the material was moved in August and September, but there’s more to go. “It’s a lot,” Hammerstrom said. For now, it’s being stored at an off-site library facility.
The library also purchased the party’s set of 167 political cartoons by women’s rights artist Nina E. Allender. A spokesman declined to reveal the price. The cartoons arrived in July.
Since 2016, the house, which has been a museum since 1997, has been operated by the National Park Service. The Park Service, too, already has a large collection of party memorabilia, but it’s now getting more textiles, banners, furniture, paintings and sculpture. The National Park Foundation funded the processing.
The house, which has elegant red, yellow and blue stained-glass windows around the front door, has been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it will continue to operate as a museum.
Hammerstrom said the aim of the donation is “preservation and access.”
“The storage that we have here is inadequate,” she said. “We can’t provide the same level of public access, digitization, conservation and preservation that the Library of Congress can. And in the centennial year [of women’s voting rights], what better gift to make to the nation?”
Meanwhile, the house remains filled with busts, illustrations and portraits of the movement’s heroes.
In the library, a framed, gold-fringed banner bears the party’s slogan: “Forward, Out of Darkness, Leave Behind the Night, Forward Out of Error, Forward Into Light."
Boxes of artifacts sat on tables. One box contained a banner in the party’s purple, gold and white colors. Another held sashes in the same colors worn by demonstrators. Other sashes were rolled up in conservation paper.
In a foyer hung an ornate portrait of party member, lawyer and social reformer Inez Milholland Boissevain, gowned in white and riding a white horse, just as she had done in a women’s voting rights parade in Washington in 1913.
Three years later, despite deteriorating health, she had gone on a speaking tour and had collapsed during an address in Los Angeles. She died a few weeks later. She was 30 years old. “Died for the Freedom of Women,” her portrait says.
Elsewhere, another framed banner, addressed to President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, read: “Mr. President: It Is Unjust to Deny Women a Voice in Their Government When the Government Is Conscripting Their Sons.”
The banner may have been one that was carried on Sept. 4, 1917, during an anti-draft rally outside the White House five months after the United States entered World War I, Hammerstrom said in an email. Several of the demonstrators were arrested.
In another room was an old, bound scrapbook owned by Alva Belmont, the multimillionaire champion of women’s rights. It was filled with faded and crumbling clippings.
Hammerstrom opened it to a page that held a drawing by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Rollin Kirby.
It had appeared on June 8, 1919, in the New York World. It depicted a woman nearing the summit of mountain that bore the sign “Equal Suffrage.”
The caption read: “Almost There.”
The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was adopted the next year.
“Our fundamental purpose has been to make sure this history is preserved and … shared as widely as possible,” said Susan Carter, president of the board of directors of the National Woman’s Party, now an educational institution.
“We really see this gift as accomplishing that,” she said.