In my 11th grade history class, we didn’t have a lot of time. The state’s standardized tests dictated the priorities of learning for the year and they missed a lot. Our teacher, in a valiant attempt to educate us on the things the tests wouldn’t, handed out topics for us to independently research and then present to the class.
When she offered up the women’s suffrage movement as topic option, I pounced. Then, I spent the rest of the day loudly expressing my disdain for the standardized testing process, ranting about how unjust it was that such a topic could be given so little weight and raging about an inherently sexist and oppressive education system.
I was pretty pissed. But, I poured my angsty little heart into that project.
I stop often to think about the women who fought for my right to vote. It’s been less than 100 years and I know that so many of the things I’ve been able to do in my life – join the military, own a house, independently make financial decisions – all have their root in that first fight to get me the right to vote.
THE BELMONT-PAUL WOMEN’S EQUALITY NATIONAL MONUMENT
Sometimes it’s almost like a national park is following me. Mentions of it will pop up everywhere – in the books I’m reading, the movies I’m watching, in random conversations. And so it was with the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. It was everywhere.
When I went to Washington, D.C. for work and ended up with an afternoon to fill, I put visiting this historic house at the top of my to-do list.
ALVA BELMONT, ALICE PAUL & the NATIONAL WOMAN’S PARTY
After finishing her master’s degree, Alice Paul moved to England in 1907. Having learned about women’s suffrage from her mother, Paul jumped into the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant suffrage organization working toward sexual equality. In the three years she spent working with the WSPU, Paul was arrested seven times, imprisoned three times and gained a foundational knowledge of civil disobedience.
Paul returned to the U.S. in 1910 and joined the National American Women Suffrage Association, which became the largest voluntary organization in the U.S., with more than two million members. As a child, she’d occasionally attended their meetings with her mother. Leaders within NAWSA included Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In 1913, Paul organized the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., the day before President Wilson’s inauguration. Thousands of women participated in the march and more than half a million came to watch. It all went to shit pretty quickly, with the crowd pressing against the women and blocking their way. Eventually, National Guardsmen held back the crowds and cleared the path for the women and, according to some reports, boy scouts helped administer aid to the injured.
This was not the way NAWSA did business and after tensions rose within the leadership of that organization, Paul left and formed the National Woman’s Party, using some of the methods she’d learned in England in her new organization. Alva Belmont, a wealthy socialite, became an early supporter of the organization, donating significant sums to get and keep it running. Belmont also served as president of the NWP from 1920-1933.
After President Wilson was re-elected, as World War I was beginning in other parts of the world, Paul and the women of the NWP started picketing outside the White House. That was a new thing, the picketing, something that hadn’t ever been done before, and they held banners that said things like, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” Many of the original banners along with several reproductions are hanging up in the Belmont-Paul House today.
When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, tolerance for the picketing done by the NWP evaporated and the women were arrested for obstructing traffic. They were sent to work houses and force-fed when they refused to eat during hunger strikes.
Images of well-connected, wealthy, white women in jail didn’t go over very well, as you can imagine.
(During the tour, our guide was quick to point out that it wasn’t just wealthy white women fighting for the vote. Black women and other women of color were involved, including Ida B. Wells, but the leaders of the NWP knew they’d automatically lose the support of several states if they put black women at the forefront of the movement. Also, racism.)
After years of pressure from the NWP and NAWSA, President Wilson advocated for the 19th Amendment in 1918. It failed the Senate by two votes.
In 1919, the amendment passed both the House and the Senate and was then sent to the states for ratification. Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin became the first states to ratify, and by the spring of 1920, 35 states had approved it; however, the amendment needed the approval of 36 states.
Seven southern states, including my own, had already rejected the amendment when it was Tennessee’s turn to vote on August 18, 1920. Things did not look good, and the vote came down to a tie, 48-48.
Rep. Harry T. Burn was the tie-breaker. Just 23-years-old, Harry opposed the amendment, but voted for it anyway after a letter from his mother encouraged him to do so.
The 19th Amendment was certified on Aug. 26, 1920, giving women the right to vote after an almost 100-year fight. That year, in November, more than eight million women voted for the first time.
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the NWP introduced the Equal Rights Amendment, worked for gender equality language in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, in 1997, became a 501(c)3 education organization that today focuses on educating people about the women’s rights movement.
Located in Capitol Hill and built in 1800, the house that is Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, was the headquarters of the NWP. It is the oldest building still standing in the neighborhood and was originally built by Robert Sewall, an influential Marylander who served as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison. It was burned during the War of 1812 and rebuilt in 1820.
In 1922, after more than 120 years in the Sewall family the house was bought and rehabbed by a senator from Vermont who sold it to the NWP in 1929. It was renamed the “Alva Belmont House,” whose donation helped the NWP purchase the property.
The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
On April 12, 2016, President Obama designated the house as a National Monument and it was renamed as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.
The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument is open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. You can explore the house without a tour, but I found it really, really informative and helpful in understanding the significance of the house and the history of the National Woman’s Party. Tours are usually available at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. and run about an hour.
Admission is free.