DC is full of museums for various historical niches, like the National Postal Museum and the Anacostia Community Museum. One of the finest and most unique is the Sewall Belmont House and Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the fight for women’s rights and suffrage in America.
Sewall Belmont is located in a regal old mansion on Capitol Hill that served for many years as the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. NWP was founded in 1917 in order to strongly advocate for women’s suffrage by endorsing candidates and politicians who supported it and withholding support from those who did not. The heroine of the movement, especially after the deaths of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the early 1900s, was Alice Paul, who devoted her entire life to women’s rights and equality. Paul lived in the Sewall Belmont House after it was donated to the cause by a wealthy and eccentric member of the NWP, Alva Belmont.
Tours of the museum, which just re-opened after extensive renovations, are self-guided and should take about an hour. The downstairs potion features marble statues and beautiful paintings of important figures in the women’s movement, as well as a detailed history of the tactics NWP members took part in such as letter-writing campaigns, protesting, and hunger strikes in jail. In the early days, they fought for the 19th Amendment, which passed in 1920. Later, NWP members strove to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which has not passed to this day, despite being introduced in every session of Congress.
The upstairs rooms are the locations for short-term exhibits, which when I visited was the fight for women’s rights during World War I. Sewall Belmont has a good relationship with the Woodrow Wilson House (another excellent museum) as well as other museums in the city, so the traveling exhibits are quite good. One of my favorite items on display in the house is a set of laminated lobby reports that NWP lobbyists filled out religiously in order to keep track of how members of Congress were on their issues. It’s quite enlightening to see the volunteers’ scrawled or typewritten notes, including those for members that were against their cause; indeed, one reads that the Senator was opposed because “women already have enough rights”! The effort that went into this cause was astounding, especially when large-scale advocacy campaigns were not the norm like they are today.
One of the best parts of Sewall Belmont is its role in continuing the fight for equality. Modern-day female politicians are featured in exhibits, and examples of inequality that remain today—did you know that there have been 270 female members of Congress, but that that represents only 2.1% of members ever elected? Sewall Belmont is an excellent place to visit to gain insight not only into the history of the fight for equality in America, but into its future.
To visit: 144 Constitution Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002. (202) 546-1210. Wednesday-Sunday, 12-5pm. Metro to Union Station, or 96 bus.
**Special thanks to local photographer and graphic designer Katie Campbell for the photographs featured in this post! Please visit her new and improved website!