On April 12, 2016, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC. The Sewall-Belmont House has actually received funding and technical assistance from the National Park Service dating back to 1974, making it an Affiliated Area of the National Park System. However, since it has remained in private hands, it has not officially been counted as a Unit of the National Park System until now.
The two-part name continues a recent trend in compound names for new national parks. This includes President Obama designating the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument (since redesignated in the National Park System as a National Historical Park) in Maryland in 2013; President Bush designating the World War II / Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Hawaii, California, and Alaska in 2008; and Congress designating the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California in 2000. In this case, the compound name alludes to the fact that President Obama issued the proclamation for this national monument on “Equal Pay Day 2016” – the day intended to highlight that by some calculations, American women in 2016 will earn, on average, 21% less than men. This calculation, however, is disputed by many economists, who point out that much of the difference is explainable by factors other than discrimination.
In picking this compound name, President Obama chose to eschew going with the “law firm” name for this new park of Sewall-Belmont-Paul National Monument. Instead, the name Sewall was dropped in favor of adding the name of famous feminist and suffragette Alice Paul.
The name Sewall comes from Robert Sewall, who had the house constructed on Capitol Hill around 1800. Historical records indicate that the Sewall family only actually occupied the house for a short time, instead renting out to numerous officials and dignitaries. Among its many residents were Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, who arranged the financing for the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent Lewis & Clark expedition. Gallatin’s home estate in western Pennsylvania is now Friendship Hill National Historic Site.
Nonetheless, the house over time came to be known as the Sewall House. Although it cannot be verified, tradition has long held that during the British attack on Washington in the War of 1812 (now commemorated by the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail) shots were fired at the British troops from the Sewall House, leading the British to set the Sewall House on fire. If this indeed happened, it was noteworthy as while the British burned the government buildings in Washington, they actually took care to spare civilian buildings, which they viewed as belonging to once and future British subjects.
The name Belmont refers to Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the wealthy philanthropist and feminist who bankrolled the National Woman’s Party’s acquisition of the Sewall House. Alva Erskine Smith was born into a wealthy family in Mobile, Alabama and her first husband was William Kissam Vanderbilt; grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the brother of Frederick William Vanderbilt. (Frederick William was responsible for building the Hyde Park, New York estate that is now Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.) Alva divorced her husband in March 1895, and then married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont less than one year later in January 1896. (Oliver Belmont was the grandnephew of the famous Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, and commemorated by the Perry’s Victory International Peace Memorial in Put-in-Bay, Ohio.) Oliver Belmont’s sudden death in 1908 seems to have directly lead to Alva Belmont actively devoting herself to the cause of women’s suffrage.
The name Paul, of course, refers to Alice Paul. Alice Paul has rightly earned fame as the dynamo of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. She recognized that the cause of women’s suffrage, which had languished for more than 100 years in this country could be brought to fruition through a relentless campaign of agitation and political action. She also recognized that she was just the person with the fame and charisma to rally a movement to do just that.
Frustrated by the pace of change, in 1913 Alice Paul, along with another woman, Lucy Burns, separated from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.) to form their own organization solely dedicated to a Constitutional Amendment for women’s suffrage. Shortly thereafter, Alva Belmont merged her own women’s suffrage organization into the new group, and in 1916 the new group was renamed as the National Woman’s Party. Just four years later the National Woman’s Party would secure its greatest success with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Around one decade later, when the National Woman’s Party needed a new headquarters, Alva Belmont was able to purchase the old Sewall House on Capitol Hill for that purpose. Located just a few blocks from the Capitol, it was a prime location from which the National Woman’s Party could engage in their principal work of lobbying Congress to advance their cause of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. At the time, the National Woman’s Party officially renamed the Sewall House as the “Alva Belmont House,” but it appears that the long-standing Sewall House name was not so easily dropped out of common use, and the name Sewall-Belmont House came into popular usage instead. Now, of course, the property will become known as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, and I suspect that this name change will be a bit more successful than the last, what with the branding power of the National Park Service behind it.
Many historians date the beginning of the organized women’s suffrage movement in the United States to the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848. Looking at the history of the early women’s suffrage movement, its immediately apparent how women’s suffrage was a natural outgrowth of the anti-slavery abolition movement and also out of the religious traditions of the Quakers. The Quakers have long been an anti-clerical movement within Christianity, originating in 17th Century England. The Quakers believed in the “priesthood of all believers,” and did not typically have a formal religious hierarchy. By the 19th Century, these beliefs were evolving within Quakerism to include a more radical equality of all people, including men and women. Not surprisingly, many of the early leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were shaped in their beliefs by the Quakers.
Today, the National Park Service’s Women’s Rights National Historical Park includes the site of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel where the Convention was held, as well as the homes of the Hunt Family and the M’Clintock Family, who were both Quakers, and the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was not. Word of the Convention was initially spread both among progressive Quakers, and among the networks of activists in the abolition of slavery movement. These networks included Frederick Douglass from nearby Rochester, New York, who was a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and who published word of the Convention in his North Star newspaper.
The Convention would last for two days, women-only on the first day, with men joining on the second day. At the end of the second day, the Convention adopted the Declaration of Sentiments, which became the seminal document of the women’s rights movement. It is notable for its comprehensive assessment of the inequalities between women and men of that day, and is now engraved in stone at Women’s Rights NHP in Seneca Falls. Although the first goal of the women’s rights movement would become the right to vote, from the beginning there was a broader articulation of civil and social rights – such as the right to own property, the right to higher education, and the right to become a “teacher of theology, medicine, or law.” All of these things, however, would take many years.
Following Seneca Falls, the women’s rights movement would receive a further boost in 1851 when Susan B. Anthony was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Since Susan B. Anthony would never marry, the absence of family commitments allowed her to spend more time travelling and organizing on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement. Anthony would become perhaps the most-famous women’s rights campaigner in the country, and the women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution would become informally known as the “Anthony Amendment.” With the addition of Belmont-Paul National Monument to the National Park System, Susan B. Anthony now clearly holds the distinction of being the most-significant figure in the women’s rights movements who is not yet commemorated in the National Park System.
Despite Anthony joining the cause, however, success would not be the reward for this first generation of activists. Following the Civil War, the women’s rights movement would split over the question of supporting the 15th Amendment, which gave the right to vote to all men, including African-Americans, but not to women. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton ultimately decided to oppose the 15th Amendment on those grounds, leading to a split and the forming of rival organizations. That lack of unity may not have been decisive in the failure to secure women’s suffrage in the 19th Century, but it certainly didn’t help.
The leaders of the movement would continue actively working for the women’s right to vote for some 50 more years, all of them into old age, but to no avail. Lucretia Mott, a Philadelphia Quaker who played a leading role in drafting the Declaration of Sentiments would die in 1880 at the age of 87. In 1887, a women’s suffrage amendment would finally receive a vote in the U.S. Senate, but was defeated by a vote of 16 in favor to 34 against. Elizabeth Cady Stanton would die in 1902 at the age of 86. Susan B. Anthony would die in 1906, also at the age of 86.
Not surprisingly, historians cite the period of 1896 to 1910 as the nadir of the women’s suffrage movement as the heroes of the Seneca Falls generation began to fade away and it was unclear as to whom would succeed them. The organizations they founded, like the N.A.W.S.A. would continue, but they were under-funded and the cause of a Federal Constitutional Amendment had largely been abandoned in favor of pursuing women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.
Enter a young Quaker woman from Mount Laurel, New Jersey named Alice Paul. The year after Susan B. Anthony’s death, in 1907, Alice Paul would set out to Great Britain at the age of 21 to continue her education with postgraduate study at the London School of Economics and to join the women’s suffrage movement in that country. It was in Britain that Paul would have what she called her “conversion experience” and where she would join the militant wing the British women’s suffrage movement. It was in Britain that she met famed British activist Emmeline Pankhurst, and is also where she met fellow American Lucy Burns, which whom she would form a life-long partnership. It was also in Britain that she would be convinced that women’s suffrage would not be achieved by persuasion alone, but that the cause would require more forceful demonstrations.
Indeed, she would live this out in Britain, ultimately being arrested several times for civil disobedience. Once arrested, a frequent tactic of the suffragists, Paul included, was to begin a hunger strike, in hopes of securing a shortened sentence. However, after a particularly boisterous protest in late 1909, one in which Paul and other suffragists smashed windows, the stakes were significantly raised. In this instance, the British authorities responded to the hunger strike by holding down Paul and force-feeding her through a tube. The experience was so traumatic for Paul that she literally had to be carried out of the jail once her sentence was over.
A few months later, in January 1910, Alice Paul returned to the United States after three years in Britain. By this time Alice Paul was a suffragist celebrity in the United States. Moreover, she returned to the United States convinced that the goal of the women’s suffrage movement must be a Federal Constitutional Amendment, and that passage of this Amendment would require employing the same tactics of the militant suffragists on the other side of the Atlantic. By the end of 1912, she had completed her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and had secured authorization from the N.A.W.S.A. to set up shop in Washington to begin lobbying activities for a Constitutional Amendment.
Once she arrived in Washington, she immediately set to work organizing confrontations in support of women’s suffrage and re-energizing the women’s movement through her charisma and her flair for the dramatic. Some of the brilliant protests she organized included a “March on the White House” the night before Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural parade in 1913, and the staging of “Silent Sentinels” in continuous peaceful protest outside the Wilson White House. The Sentinels would maintain a small fire in an urn, in which they would burn copies of any Woodrow Wilson speech referring to “freedom” or to “liberty.” These attempts to embarrass Woodrow Wilson were in keeping with Alice Paul’s grand strategy that all Democrats must be held responsible for the failure to pass the women’s suffrage amendment, since they were the party in power at the time. Alice Paul’s application of this opposition to all Democrats in the 1914 elections led to her break with the avowedly non-partisan N.A.W.S.A. and the founding of the National Woman’s Party, in 1916.
Now in charge of her own organization, Alice Paul only accelerated her campaign from there, leading to more civil disobedience and more arrests, both by herself and by the many supporters she inspired to join her. At one point, after many National Woman’s Party members were arrested after another protest, she specifically sought out arrest to join them, and was given a seven month sentence. In protest of the terrible conditions, she once again began a hunger strike, and this time she was force-fed raw eggs through a tube before ultimately being released.
However, soon the tide turned. In April 1917, the United States entered the First World War. The next January, Woodrow Wilson called for passage of the women’s suffrage amendment, quote, “as an urgent war measure.” The House of Representatives passed the amendment shortly thereafter. The Senate would finally follow suit more than one year later, passing it in June 1919 on its third attempt, sending the amendment to the States for ratification. The amendment was added to the Constitution upon ratification by Tennessee in August 1920, just in time for women across the U.S. to vote in the 1920 Presidential election. After 70 years of struggle, the women’s rights movement had achieved its most-important victory, and its hard to describe the role of Alice Paul as being anything less than central to this achievement.
With the 19th Amendment added to the Constitution, the question then became “what next?” In this interview, Alice Paul relates that her National Woman’s Party was heavily in debt from the long campaign. In the months immediately following ratification, the National Woman’s Party would basically shut down, the headquarters would be closed, and all efforts would be devoted to fundraising in order to pay off the debts. Meanwhile, the N.A.W.S.A., having accomplished its mission, would reorganize itself into the League of Women Voters, which we know to this day.
Reading about Alice Paul, however, you kind of get the sense that she would never really be happy unless she was engaged in campaign to make a difference. Having spent more than a decade of her life agitating for women’s suffrage, its hard to envision her retiring to a quiet life somewhere. So its not at all surprising that in 1921, when Alice Paul convened a meeting of National Woman’s Party to decide whether the continue, the decision was a resounding “yes.” Just as when Alice Paul first returned to the United States from Great Britain with the conviction that the top priority should be a Federal Constitutional Amendment, the new goal would also be a Constitutional Amendment. Two years later, in 1923, Alice Paul and others would return to Seneca Falls for the 75th Anniversary of the Declaration of Sentiments and to propose a new amendment to the Constitution establishing full equality for women. After some revisions in future years, it would become what we know today as the Equal Rights Amendment. The simple text of Article 1 of the ERA read:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The campaign to secure passage of the ERA would consume the rest of Alice Paul’s life.
In 1972, Congress finally passed the ERA and submitted it to the States, with a deadline of 6 years for ratification. Alice Paul would die in 1977 at the age of 92 with the ERA just two States shy of ratification. Unfortunately for the ERA, no further ratifications would come by the 1979 deadline, and instead, some States would actually rescind their ratification. There was a half-hearted attempt to try and extend the deadline for three years to 1982, but by then it was clear that the momentum for the ERA, and indeed the dynamo behind so much of the women’s movement, had been lost. The extended deadline also expired with no additional ratifications, and the ERA was defeated.
Just as the 15th Amendment had split the women’s movement in 1869 by extending the right to vote to African-Americans, but not to women, the ERA, which was modeled on the language of the 15th Amendment, also split the women’s movement. From the beginning in the 1920’s, many in the women’s movement expressed concern that the ERA would take away special privileges enjoyed by women, such as special protection under labor laws and laws regarding alimony. In later years, other objections would be raised including that some of the consequences of the ERA would include taking away the exemption of women from the draft, prohibiting maternity leave policies, and ending “dependent wife benefits” under Social Security. Another objection raised in the 1970’s was that an ERA prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex would also require the government to extend recognition of marriage to same-sex couples, since marriage was defined at that time based on opposite-sex couples. Ironically, the Belmont-Paul National Monument in Alice Paul’s honor was established less than a year after the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution required that anyways – even without passage of the ERA.
It is unfortunate, but understandable, that the lasting legacy to Alice Paul in the National Park System will be associated with the unsuccessful ERA effort, rather than her brilliant campaign and greatest triumph. After passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the rebooted National Women’s Party found a new headquarters in 1921 in a building called the Old Brick Capitol. When that building was ultimately condemned in 1929 under eminent domain to make way for the Supreme Court Building, Alice Paul’s old friend, Alva Belmont, stepped in with the funding to secure the old Sewall House as a new headquarters. Alice Paul would lead the campaign for the ERA from this building for nearly 50 years.
The National Woman’s Party would continue to lobby for the ERA for more than a decade. In 1997, the National Woman’s Party decided to cease its lobbying efforts and to focus on preservation and education. Even though the building will now be managed as part of the National Park System, the National Woman’s Party will remain an active partner at the site, including managing their extensive collection of historical artifacts associated with the campaign for the ERA, the life of Alice Paul, and the women’s suffrage movement. With its new designation as part of the National Park System, many more visitors to Washington, DC will encounter the story of this extraordinary leader, and will remember the legacy of how through sheer determination and charismatic inspiration Alice Paul changed the course of history.
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