Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument marks former National Woman’s Party headquarters
President Obama designated a new national monument at Washington DC’s Sewall-Belmont House and Museum on April 12, recognizing the crucial role of women in shaping equal rights in the U.S.
The new Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument marks the former headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, which fought to expand our democracy through ratification of the 19th Amendment. On Equal Pay Day, it becomes one of precious few national public land units that specifically commemorates women’s history.
President Obama will confer monument status through use of the Antiquities Act, which has been used by almost every president—Republicans and Democrats alike—to protect places of natural or cultural importance when Congress will not.
The new monument’s namesake, Alice Paul, founded the Women’s Party—later renamed the National Woman’s Party—in 1916 to mount a dogged campaign of nonviolent protest with the goal of women’s full inclusion in American society. By marching in parades, distributing literature, lobbying lawmakers and most famously picketing the White House, Paul and her fellow suffragists gradually elevated the issue to the point that President Woodrow Wilson was forced to endorse the 19th Amendment. Congress ratified that measure in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
The National Woman’s Party later broadened its scope to include working on the Equal Rights Amendment and international women’s rights. The group moved into the Sewall-Belmont House in 1929.
Sewall-Belmont House struggled in recent years
For years, the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum existed as a non-profit organization, but the 200-year-old building has deteriorated amid funding issues. Cutbacks have meant fewer public tours and educational programs about this important chapter of American history.
"It’s so important that we not only preserve the place where they fought for women’s full inclusion in society ... but elevate it to its rightful spot among our nation’s most important national treasures." -Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2015
On April 4, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and others met with supporters at the Sewall-Belmont House to consider designation of the museum as a National Park Service unit, a potential source of relief for the site’s funding problems. President Obama’s national monument designation is the beginning of a new and hopeful chapter for the house, which will hopefully ensure the public can learn about this history for generations to come.
Antiquities Act protects important sites when legislation fails
The cause of protecting the Sewall-Belmont House as a National Park Service unit or otherwise increasing federal support has enjoyed bipartisan favor for decades. In 2015, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) introduced legislation to declare the house a national historic site. Testifying in support of the bill, Sen. Mikulski said:
Not a single one of us would be here without Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party. That’s why it’s so important that we not only preserve the place where they fought for women’s full inclusion in society ... but elevate it to its rightful spot among our nation’s most important national treasures.”
Measures to preserve Sewall-Belmont have enjoyed significant support from lawmakers, but like other parks and lands bills, they have been unable to pass in the current Congress, pressing the Antiquities Act into service.