- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

About 150 years ago, women took up the fight for an important right the right to vote. They protested, campaigned, marched and became familiar with the inside of a jail cell all in the name of equality.

Their cause under the umbrella of the National Woman's Party is commemorated within the walls of the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, a distinguished mansion in the heart of Capitol Hill, standing next to the Hart Senate Office Building and across the street from the Supreme Court.

Today, the house exists as a memorial to the thousands of Americans who participated in the women's suffrage movement. But the message is far grander than the house, remarks Lori Geiger, director of outreach and events.

"In our day and age, people forget how long it took to get the right to vote," she says. "Today, children can come and learn the story and probably hear more than they've ever heard in their classrooms. People walk away feeling that they, as individuals, can change the world."

Visitors enter the house at ground level, where they are invited to view a half-hour video called "We Were Arrested, Of Course," as they wait for their tour to begin. A small visitors' center displays National Woman's Party information, photographs and posters.

An authentic hand-sewn party banner circa 1915 to 1920 displays the three colors of suffrage: purple for the glory of womanhood, white for the purity in the home and politics, and gold for the crown of victory.

Jennifer Spencer, education and collections coordinator, might lead your tour on the day you visit, and she will explain some of the more fascinating details of the house.

The house is one of the oldest on Capitol Hill. It was built in 1799 by Robert Sewall, who rented it out to the prominent political figures of his day. During the War of 1812, the British in 1814 burned the house to the ground in retaliation after militiamen in the home shot a horse out from under a British general, says Ms. Spencer. Rebuilt by 1820, the house then was passed down through generations of Sewalls.

In 1929, the National Woman's Party bought the house, and party founder Alice Paul worked there with Herculean effort for more than 40 years.

"It was said that she didn't even take the time to hang her clothes in the closet," Ms. Spencer says. "She'd hang them on the fireplace."

The large, high-ceilinged rooms contain a trove of fine arts and antiques related to the suffrage movement, many donated by the leaders of the National Woman's Party and their families.

Sculptures and busts of women important to the cause line the house's entryway. Susan B. Anthony's desk the desk at which she drafted the document that became the 19th Amendment sits in the Alice Paul Office.

The desk shares space with a chair on which Elizabeth Cady Stanton sat during the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York, where women first called for the right to vote. Exquisite china and furnishings that once belonged to Alva Vanderbilt Belmont one of the house's namesakes are displayed in the dining room.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the house today is the Florence Bayard Hilles Library, a smallish room built in 1941 in the carriage house of the mansion. It is the nation's oldest feminist library and, says Ms. Spencer, was the only place in the country at that time where women could come to learn about the fight for equal rights.

The library contains more than 500 volumes, books by feminist authors such as Stanton and Anthony. There are authentic banners wrapped in tissue paper, suffragist newsletters and original posters dating to the 1960s. More than 4,000 photographs are here, all from the suffrage and equal-rights movements. There are images of suffragists picketing the White House, marching, and cross-country lobbying trips. Scrapbooks chronicle the movement.

The library is the best tool in the museum, Ms. Spencer says.

"That's my favorite part of the tour," she says. "I actually put items out on the table for people to look at and touch. They're really seeing it for themselves. It brings it to a real point for them."

This point, says Ms. Geiger, is that anyone can change the world.

"Because the women of the National Woman's Party fought for the right to vote, this is a privilege that we need to utilize," she says. "Little children, in that same vein, can go home and tell their parents that this wasn't a privilege easily won."


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