This week President Obama used his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to make Washington DC’s Sewall-Belmont House a national monument. Sewall-Belmont, now a museum, was home to the National Woman’s Party, which fought for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.
It’s a big deal. The Sewall-Belmont House has fallen into disrepair throughout its history and many times faced the threat of closure. Now, like all national monuments, it’ll be cared for by the National Park Service. It will be called the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, in honor of Alva Belmont and Alice Paul.
In his speech elevating the modest building’s status, the prez called it “a hotbed of activism, a centerpiece for the struggle for equality, a monument to the fight not just for women’s equality, but ultimately for equality for everybody.”
The National Woman’s Party was founded in 1916 as an outgrowth of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which wasn’t doing much at the time. But Alice Paul and Lucy Burns changed all that.
Paul, a Jersey girl, traveled to Birmingham in 1907 to study social work and ended up joining the British suffrage movement, working with radicals with amazing names like Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl’s character in Suffragette) and her daughter Christabel. In London, Paul met fellow American Lucy Burns and the two became comrades-in-arms.
The fight for the vote in Britain was fierce. Members of the militant suffrage movement staged hunger strikes, endured jail time and were dragged through the streets and otherwise roughed up by cops. Paul herself was sentenced to a month hard labor after she disrupted a speech by British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith by throwing her shoes and breaking windows. (She and a fellow suffragette had posed as cleaners in the hall where the speech was to be delivered.) She was force-fed in jail, and suffered long-term health consequences as a result.
By the time she returned to the States in 1910, Alice Paul’s radicalism was fully realized. In 1913 she organized the famous Woman Suffrage Procession, which drew 8,000 marchers and hundreds of thousands of onlookers.
In the years between the procession and the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the vote, American suffragists worked tirelessly. They lit watchfires outside the White House.
They published a weekly journal.
They traveled to the capitol from all over the country to present a petition to Congress.
And they held nonviolent demonstrations called “Silent Sentinels.”
In 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment. In 1920, it was ratified.
Suffragists celebrated, but Paul was realistic. In 1920 she said:
“It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and unaccustomed policy is not to ignore women…Unless women are prepared to fight politically they must be content to be ignored politically.”
Paul was the original author of the 1923 Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee women’s rights and fought for its passage throughout her life. That amendment still has not been ratified.