As late as the early 1970s, if you’d knocked on the door of the red brick house at the northwest corner of Second Street and Constitution Avenue NE, it might have been an elderly woman who opened it and welcomed you in. Her name was Alice Stokes Paul, and five decades earlier, she fought to get U.S. women the right to vote.
Alice Paul died in 1977, but the house is still there. It’s called the Sewall-Belmont House, and it’s still the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, which Paul co-founded in 1916 as a lobbying group and which today operates the house as a museum to the women’s suffrage movement.
The question is: Will it be around in 2020, when the 19th Amendment turns 100?
Well, the house will be there. It’s on the register of historic places. (It’s thought to be the only private residence torched by the British during the War of 1812 after someone in the house took a potshot at the redcoats.) But its role as a women’s history museum is threatened. It takes a lot of money to maintain a 200-year-old structure. And money is in short supply.
“When winter comes, I’m terrified of a cracked pipe in the basement,” Page Harrington, the executive director of the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, told me when I visited last week.
She’s the sole full-time employee. When mold was discovered last year in the library’s HVAC system, she had to find $90,000 to remediate it. That meant converting some positions to part-time. Despite the dire situation, Harrington said, “we will fight tooth and nail before we go quietly into the night.”
The Sewall-Belmont House tells the story of a determined band of women who literally put their lives on the line to get the vote for half the nation’s population.
Outside the Sewall-Belmont House is a set of steps from the Occoquan Workhouse, where protesters were imprisoned after being arrested for demonstrating in front of the White House in 1917. Many were force-fed.
In October 1916, a young face of the movement — Inez Milholland — collapsed while giving a speech in Los Angeles. In poor health and suffering from pernicious anemia, she’d been counseled not to go on the speaking tour. After her death a month later at age 30, the New York Times called Milholland “Idol of the suffragists and one of the most beautiful women in the United States.”
You can sense that the editors thought that her beauty made her demise doubly tragic.
A wonderful painting inside the museum shows Milholland as most Americans knew her: clad in a white cape astride a white horse. That’s what she wore when she led a suffrage parade through Washington on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration in 1913.
The National Woman’s Party moved to its current location in 1929 after operating where the Supreme Court is today and, later, from a building on Lafayette Square. The party’s big victory was the vote, but it continued to work on other causes. It led the fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, in the process compiling detailed files on how various U.S. lawmakers stood on the issue. (“Thinks it a fool Amendment,” a female lobbyist wrote of Sen. George H. Moses, a New Hampshire Republican. “Is through putting embroidery in the Constitution.”)
Over time, the National Woman’s Party saw its influence fade. Its leaders — depicted in stolid marble busts in the Sewall-Belmont House — must have struck younger feminists as stodgy and matronly.
There is an antique vibe to the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum: sepia photographs, fading banners, old newsprint. Tea and soap are among the items sold in the gift shop. The National Woman’s Party operated tea rooms to raise money. They sold soap, too, while arguing that giving women the vote would help “clean up” politics.
Old-fashioned it may be, but this is the stuff of history. The irony for Page Harrington is that although feminism is again part of the national conversation, her little museum is scrambling to stay afloat.
“We are still here,” she said. “It’s a lifeline to the past. It draws a connection to the women who came before us.”
In 1974, five years before the ERA failed to meet its ratification deadline, Alice Paul was interviewed by American Heritage magazine. She was asked to describe her part in the struggle for women’s rights.
“I always feel … the movement is a sort of mosaic,” she said. “Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.”
The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, 144 Constitution Avenue NE, is open Friday and Saturday for guided tours. Admission is $8 for adults and children 7 and older. Members are free. Visit www.sewallbelmont.org or call 202-546-1210.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.