A house and museum that was home to one of the nation’s leading women’s rights organizations will be the United States’ first national monument to women’s history.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration will designate the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C., as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, underlining the National Park Service’s desire to acquire more sites that highlight women’s achievements. The monument joins three national parks that also focus on women’s history (parks are approved by Congress, while monuments are chosen by the president and do not require congressional approval).
Suffragist Alice Paul moved the National Woman’s Party to the house in 1929. It remained the party’s headquarters until 1997, when the NWP became an educational organization, and turned the house into a museum.
The designation of the building as a monument ensures that it will have adequate funding for its upkeep—something that it has recently struggled with. Last year, executive director Page Harrington was forced to move some positions to part-time in order to cover a $90,000 mold problem.
“That was a real low point for us,” she says. Although Harrington has now moved some of those positions back to full-time, she says that the mold crisis “was a wake-up call” that the museum needed help from a partner.
“As any small museum moves forward, it gets harder and harder to take care of all of the needs of the property and the needs of the collection,” says Harrington. The property’s designation as a national monument “means that the house will be secured in perpetuity” by its new owner, the Parks Service.
The house’s collection of banners, posters, and historical artifacts of the suffrage era and beyond “will continue to be conserved and curated, as it should be, by the National Woman’s Party,” she says.
Paul moved her party’s headquarters to the house nearly a decade after the NWP and other organizations had won the fight for women’s voting rights.
During the struggle for suffrage in the early 20th century, the NWP had kept its headquarters close to the White House; but now that its members were political participants, they needed (in the words suffragist Elsie Hill) “a vantage point from which they may keep Congress under perpetual observation.” The house, located near Capitol Hill, was just the right place.
“Alice Paul always thought that the right to vote was just the first step,” says Harrington. “Women needed to vote, but they needed to vote because they needed to be politically active, and they needed to be engaged and educated in what was going on in not only their communities, but in national politics as well.”
Once they got their votes, the women of the NWP began campaigning for female candidates and drafting legislation for women’s rights that addressed issues like property rights, divorce, and the ability to keep your maiden name after marriage. Alice Paul herself drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which women’s rights activists have been trying to pass since 1923.
Over the next several decades, Harrington says that “well over 100 pieces of legislation that they drafted were actually passed.” The NWP supported the 1922 Cable Act, which repealed a law that had previously taken away U.S. citizenship from women who married non-citizens. In the 1930s, it also fought to eliminate part of an act that prevented people from working for the federal government if their spouse already did. (As you might imagine, the purpose of that rule wasn’t to keep men out of government.)
“From out of this house, these woman wrote pieces of legislation and lobbied for them, and impacted thousands and thousands of women’s lives,” says Harrington. “We have people, men and women, who come into his house, and they cry.”
The incredible history of the house makes it an important addition to the NPS. And for some, this history is still within memory.
“There are women today that are in their 60s and 70s who come to this house and they say, ‘When I was a coed, and I was in D.C. … I walked up those stairs, rang that bell, and Alice Paul answered the door,’” says Harrington. “And to them, it is a pivotal moment in their lives.”
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