Women of the 1900s You Need to Know
Each year thousands of tourists descend upon DC to explore all that our capital has to offer. The numerous free museums that line the National Mall are a favorite for visitors and residents alike for good reason, but many never consider a visit to the small house beside the Hart Senate Office Building — one of the oldest houses in the city. Unobtrusive as it may be, it stands as the historic center of liberty for what some may believe to be the better half of America.
I was excited to visit the house and learn about “her-story” instead of history, as I joked to any family member or friend who would listen.
Eating dinner with my sister the week before my visit, I gushed about how exciting a trip to the Belmont-Paul House would be, having watched “Iron Jawed Angels” in high school, the movie portraying the struggles of Alice Paul (as played by Hilary Swank). My sister, an intelligent, professional woman, had never even heard of Alice Paul.
It’s easy to recognize Abraham Lincoln as having brought about the 15th Amendment, giving all (male) citizens the right to vote regardless of color (de jure, though not de facto). Likewise, most of us know the names and many of the faces of the Founding Fathers who wrote this country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Yet neither my sister, nor any of my educated and even feminist friends, could name the champion who had brought us the opportunity to vote (and do so much more) — Alice Paul. This, I decided, was a tragedy of national proportions, and my visit would be one small step toward greater equality on the most personal level.
The D.C. summer weather decided to cooperate with plenty of sun and a cool breeze as my friend and I approached the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument on a Wednesday morning.
Arriving with just two minutes to spare before our tour began, we were seated with other visitors to the house and watched a short video about the fight for women’s suffrage in America. Our appetites for democracy whetted, we joined our park ranger for the tour. Our ranger was engaging and upbeat, open to questions, and as excited by the history of the house as we were.
Guided tours are offered 4 times a day, Wednesday through Sunday and are about an hour long. The tour takes visitors through the history of women’s rights in America from the mid-1800s to today. Afterwards, guests are free to roam the house, taking extra time to read the many plaques and to look more closely at pictures and political cartoons.
The house itself is historic, having belonged to the Sewell family, but focusing on its age rather than the suffragists and women’s rights activists who have lived and worked within its walls would be comparable to merely valuing the White House for its architectural merit.
Elva Belmont, an heiress three times over and a suffragist to boot, donated thousands of dollars to the National Woman’s Party. Her donations made the purchase of the home by the NWP possible in 1929. It remains in use by the NWP, though their work today has shifted from political to educational work.
Susan B. Anthony and many of the women commemorated at Women’s Right National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage, yet their strides toward the vote were largely diminished as the nation turned its focus to the issues of abolition during and after the Civil War.
A new generation of women took up the fight in the early 1900s, continuing the long marathon toward equality that continues even today. Perhaps the greatest leader to spring from this generation was Alice Paul.
After receiving her education from Swarthmore College and visiting England, where she witnessed the intense fight for women’s suffrage abroad, Paul returned to the U.S. and began to work to earn women the right to vote in her own country.
Paul organized the first political march up Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913. Just the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, a massive outpouring of women in the capital paraded down the avenue, including 4 golden chariots, banners, and thousands of women courageous enough to demand a vote.
Passersby quickly became violent (many under the influence of alcohol), cat-calling, yelling, and even attacking the women. Still, publicity is publicity, and the march sprung the women into the headlines of front pages across the nation. They continued to work toward their enfranchisement, with a gusto.
The tour showed pictures of the automobile tours the women ran and political cartoons highlighting the suffragists attempts to sway the Democrats in power. They became the first group to picket in front of the White House. As President Wilson ignored their demands, the women stoically continued to stand outside the front gates, holding signs and banners that are still preserved at the museum.
The president ultimately had the police arrest the women, resulting in horrific treatment of these political prisoners. Photos display women, worn-down and ragged after being imprisoned and force-fed by prison guards using rubber tubes inserted through their noses, down their throats, and into their stomachs, a task that apparently seemed more desirable then providing them the right to vote.
President Wilson ultimately recommended that Congress pass the 19th Amendment, or the Susan B. Anthony Amendment as it is sometimes referred. The next step was ratification of the amendment by ¾ of the states.
The main opposition came from Southern states, which remained among the only states to oppose the amendment, fearing greater suffrage not only for white women, but for their black counterparts. In a gripping vote, the Tennessee Legislature finally voted pro-suffrage, giving half of the country the chance to vote for their president for the first time.
Women finally had the right to vote, and by this point in the tour, my heart was racing. But as our ranger explained, this was only the first step.
The next step was to empower women to make a change. Alice Paul went on to write the Equal Rights Amendment, a simple call for legal equality between men and women that continues to be kept alive and discussed in Congress, though almost 100 years later, it has yet to be ratified.
After its designation, the National Park Foundation was pleased to provide a $1 million gift to the site. The grant was used to provide much needed repair and restoration to the historic house. The funds helped with both interior and exterior improvements, such as upgrading the HVAC systems of the house, roof and chimney repairs, and a fire suppression system.
Keeping the house preserved for future generations enables the park system to tell a more complete American history.
As a young, millennial woman, I identify with feminism and grew up with the assumption that all people were created equal, and thus should be treated so under the law. As an adult, I see the remaining wage gap and the social inequalities so ingrained in our society.
Still, I often forget the fight that took place for even just the right to vote.
I did not realize that in 1913, thousands of women had to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to let their cause be seen — and even then, they’d have to wait another 7 years for their demands to be met.
The Belmont-Paul House keeps this gripping, and still relevant, history alive. Though we now (should) see women’s suffrage as the most basic and obvious of rights, there was a time when a few brave women were beaten and imprisoned, yet persevered in order to demand change rather than accepting what they were told was their “comfortable” role at home.
I’m so thankful they took a stand to make a change and that we can play a role in helping ensure stories like theirs continue to be told.