Built in 1800 and the oldest home on Capitol Hill, this house was sold to the National Woman’s Party in 1929 and has been its headquarters ever since. It is also a museum of women’s history.
Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site
144 Constitution Avenue NE
Washington, DC 20002
ph.: (202) 546-3989, 546-1210
fax: (202) 546-3997
Web site: www.natwomanparty.org
The Sewall-Belmont House is the oldest residence on Capitol Hill, and that in itself makes it interesting, but it is also the working headquarters of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and a museum of women’s rights. The building is named for its first owner, Robert Sewall, and for Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, who, with her wealth as part of the Vanderbilt family, purchased the house for the NWP in 1929. Curiously, the individual most closely connected with the site, Alice Paul, who founded and headed the NWP for over thirty years and lived in the house for many years as well, is not part of the name.
The first structure on the site was a one-room farmhouse that dates, according to some sources, to 1680. This became the kitchen when a red brick Federal-period town house was built in 1799 by Robert Sewall, on land he had purchased from Daniel Carroll soon after the city of Washington, D.C., was laid out.
At about the same time, however, Sewall inherited his family’s plantation in Maryland and wanted to live there. So he rented the house to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, who served under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from 1801 to 1813. Gallatin drafted and finalized the Louisiana Purchase in his front-parlor office, which is now preserved as the California Room. After Gallatin left, several American flotilla men were stationed at the house during the War of 1812, and because of several shots fired from there during the British invasion of Washington, D.C., it was the only residence burned by the British. These shots were, in fact, the only resistance that the British faced as they torched many public buildings in the new city.
Sewall had completely rebuilt the house by 1820, and from then on it was occupied by his family members and descendents until 1922, when it was purchased by Senator Porter H. Dale of Vermont. In 1929, Belmont bought it as headquarters for the NWP as a residence for the party’s founder, Alice Paul.
Born January 11, 1885, in Moorestown, New Jersey, Alice Paul was graduated from Swarthmore College in 1905 and then went on to do graduate work at the New York School of Social Work. From there she went to England to continue her studies and do settlement work. While in England, she studied at the University of Birmingham and the University of London, earning a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in absentia in 1907. On her return home, she earned her Ph.D. from the same school in 1913.
While in England, however, Paul did more than study and practice social work. She became involved in the radical, militant wing of the British suffrage movement, which was fighting for women’s right to vote by staging marches and demonstrations. Three times, Paul was arrested and imprisoned in England.
Returning in 1910, Paul became involved in the struggle for suffrage in the United States. She began by joining the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and becoming, in 1912, the chair of the congressional committee of this organization, which had been working for many decades for women’s right to vote.
NAWSA, however, continued to work as it always had, trying to convince one state after another to allow women to vote. The association, at this stage, was concerned about upsetting those in power and tried not to be too radical in its approach. Paul, used to radical and direct action in England, became frustrated with the slow movement she saw in NAWSA, and in 1913 she formed a separate organization called the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. This would become the National Woman’s Party in 1916.
Alice Paul used the ideas she had learned in England, and in 1913 she led the first picket of the White House. Women from all over the country chained themselves to the White House fence to symbolize their servitude since they could not participate in the country’s government by voting. During World War I, the NWP used the rhetoric of the war to champion its cause, protesting a government that promised to make the world safe for democracy while denying the vote to half of its citizens.
With the country in a patriotic mood, the pickets, which continued, were threatened by hostile crowds and many women were arrested. Imprisoned three times for her actions, Paul waged hunger strikes. She was placed in solitary confinement and at one point was hospitalized in a mental institution, force-fed, and treated as insane. Her spirit, however, remained unbroken.
One dark mark on the NWP’s actions at the time was its treatment of African American women. Alice Paul herself seemed ambivalent, expressing sympathy for black woman suffrage but in practice doing things that contradicted that conviction. She often refused to allow African American women to speak at NWP functions, and in the 1913 parade, Ida B. Wells, a prominent black woman of the time, was asked not to march with the Chicago delegation. It seemed expedient not to make an issue of black women’s rights in order to avoid alienating white southern women, but the result was that African American women and men both continued to suffer for decades under racist state and local policies that prevented them from exercising their right to vote.
Paul’s and the NWP’s activism on behalf of woman suffrage, however, led to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and its addition to the Constitution on August 26, 1920. Shortly before her death, Alice Paul said that helping women gain the right to vote was the most useful thing she ever did.
Now that women had the vote, the NWP could perhaps have rested on its laurels, but Paul could see that without full equality under the law, just the right to vote did little to ensure that women would be treated fairly. So in 1923, she authored an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which stated that women and men should have equal treatment under the laws of the United States. This amendment did not pass Congress until 1972, and then it failed to receive enough state ratifications to be enacted and made part of the Constitution in the time span allowed. However, the struggle for ratification of the ERA remains the NWP’s primary focus today.
After the ERA first failed to pass in the 1920’s, Paul, while continuing her entire life to fight for the amendment, also turned her attention in other directions. She earned additional degrees, worked for the League of Nations, and lobbied for world peace. Alice Paul died July 9, 1977, at the height of the second wave of the women’s movement, having spent her life in the cause of women’s rights. The most well known organization that she founded, the National Woman’s Party, remains active in the house where Paul spent so many years, the Sewall-Belmont House.
Although it is still an active headquarters, the house is also open today to the public as a museum. Most of its two floors are accessible to visitors, including Paul’s bedroom on the second floor and the California Room, which commemorates an event in its earlier history, the Louisiana Purchase.
The house is filled with antique furniture, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s chair, which she sat in at the first women’s rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, and Susan B. Anthony’s desk. There are also sculptures and portraits of many women in the suffrage and women’s rights movements, such as Lucretia Mott, Stanton, and Alice Paul herself. In addition, there is a life-size statue of fifteenth century French martyr Joan of Arc.
Visitors can view scrapbooks, photographs, articles, early twentieth century newspapers and editorial cartoons, and rare archives about the struggle for women’s rights. In the hallway hangs the gold-and-purple banner used during the first protests of the National Woman’s Party, which says: “We demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising Women.”
Tours are offered, which include a film about the history of woman suffrage and a narrated walking tour of the house. The site also offers internship programs, where young persons may gain knowledge and experience while working on projects from research to library skills. An indoor terrace and the garden are available to be rented for catered special events.
The Sewall-Belmont site also includes the oldest feminist library in the country. The library was set up in the former carriage house in 1940 to house the Alva Belmont Book Collection, which had been in storage since 1933. Opened in 1941, it was rededicated in 1943 as the Florence Bayard Hilles Library, after the woman who headed the project of creating the library. A restoration project was planned to return the library to its original state after years of neglect and make it accessible to researchers. In addition, the Sewall-Belmont House is also a center for work on ratification of the ERA and for women’s rights activities.
The Sewall-Belmont House is easily found, next to the Senate office buildings and across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court building. It is four blocks from the Union Station metro stop. The house is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:00
Becker, Susan D. The Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. This book provides a history of the NWP and the ERA. Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991. Describes the radical tactics of the NWP and the result for many of its members–imprisonment. Like most of the books about Alice Paul and the NWP, this one is a scholarly study. Gillmore, Inez Haynes. The Story of the Woman’s Party. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921. This book, written shortly after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, tells the story of the NWP from the perspective of its own times. National Park Foundation. Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site. www.nationalparks.org/guide/parks/sewall-belmo-1727.htm. This Web page tells about the history of the house and provides information about visiting the site. Rupp, Leila J., and Verta Taylor. Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. This book tells the rest of the story–the activity of the NWP in more recent years. The authors credit the party with keeping the women’s movement alive until the 1960’s. Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920. The story of the fight for woman suffrage told by one of the women who was imprisoned for civil disobedience and who also served an important role in the NWP.