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September 18, 1968: Suffragists Fight to Save the Historic Sewall-Belmont House

Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.

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Alice Paul is in full fighting mode today, and women are preparing to risk arrest and engage in civil disobedience if necessary.

Though this sounds like a report from the suffrage battlefront 50 years ago, it’s not. But there is one big difference between 1918 and 1968. Back then, the National Woman’s Party wanted Congress to pass something: the Susan B. Anthony – now the 19th – Amendment. Today, the party wants Congress to defeat a bill confiscating two-thirds of historic Sewall-Belmont House property to build a driveway for an expanded New Senate Office Building. The party has always tried to have its headquarters as close to the center of political action as possible, but at the moment it may seem a bit too close.

The National Woman’s Party has had its offices and officers’ living quarters at Sewall-Belmont House since 1929, when it became the group’s fifth and final headquarters. The house itself is one of the oldest homes on Capitol Hill. Robert Sewall completed construction on the original house by 1800, and rented it to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin from 1801 to 1813. In August, 1814, the house was burned by invading British troops because it was used by those resisting their advance on Washington. Sewall rebuilt the house after the war, and it remained in his family for over a century, until purchased by Senator Porter Dale, Republican of Vermont, in 1922. He sold it to Alva Belmont in 1929, so that she could donate it to the National Woman’s Party as their new headquarters.

It has been reported that the Joint Committee on Landmarks, in a report that will be delivered to the National Capital Planning Commission, thinks the house belongs in the “landmark” category, following a three-year study. But Rep. Kenneth Gray, Democrat of Illinois, disagrees. A member of the Public Works Committee, he has been engaging in unethical tactics to steamroll this bill through the House after it was passed by the Senate.

Representative Gray has presented his bill as just a “housekeeping” measure that ought to be passed by the House as a simple courtesy to the Senate, and has reportedly misinformed Members of Congress that an agreement was reached with the National Woman’s Party to sell the land for $50,000. He has said that Sewall-Belmont House is “unsightly,” of “no historical significance” and that the apartments used by N.W.P. officers are in disrepair and “will fall down anyway.”

The bill was originally introduced by Senator Ralph Yarborough, Democrat of Texas, and it excludes from condemnation the central portion of the building and a small lot, but confiscates the majority of the property. “It’s all one building and one historical landmark,” says Alice Paul, N.W.P.’s founder.

Alice Paul at the Sewall-Belmont House.
Alice Paul at the Sewall-Belmont House.

When the bill first came up for discussion in the House on August 2nd, Rep. Edith Green, Democrat of Oregon, noted that the Senate had passed it by a ratio of 4-3, hardly the kind of near-unanimous vote normally cast for uncontroversial “housekeeping” measures. Others objected to trying to push any bill through last month because so many members were away attending either the Republican or Democratic National Conventions in Miami and Chicago.

Alice Paul, 83, is as actively involved in this new campaign as the one half a century ago. Today she phoned N.W.P. President Emma Guffey Miller at Miller’s home in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, to discuss strategy, and has sent telegrams to House Majority Whip Hale Boggs, Democrat of Louisiana, and Senator Everett B. Jordan, Democrat of North Carolina, asking them to delay action, citing the findings of the Joint Committee on Landmarks.

But if conventional methods fail, the National Woman’s Party knows how to escalate. And this time they have a new ally. Barbara Ireton, president of the National Capital Area Chapter of the National Organization for Women said it was decided at meetings held today in Washington and New York that if necessary, a ring of women will surround the property to protect it if the House passes the condemnation bill and President Johnson doesn’t veto it. So, history may repeat itself half a century after National Woman’s Party “Silent Sentinels” went to jail in D.C. for peacefully protesting along the White House fence in favor of woman suffrage. Updates will follow when there are new developments in this confrontation.


 

INFLATIONARY NOTE: $50,000 in 1968 = $341,741 in 2014.