Everything I know about how women got the right to vote in this country began with a movie called “Iron-jawed Angels”. I was invited to a screening in the Library of Congress before the HBO broadcast, and stars Hilary Swank and Julia Ormond were there, too.
It was then that I realized that women’s suffrage, treated like something of a footnote in US history class, was such a controversial issue that women had been beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and suffered greatly to obtain it.
It struck me that there must be a connection between women’s fight for the vote being swept under the rug of history and our ongoing struggle for equality in this country. I wanted to know more.
Little did I know I was only steps away from the proverbial mother lode of suffrage history.
You can walk a direct line from the Library of Congress to Sewell-Belmont House, home of the National Women’s Party and a museum housing the artifacts of the militant movement for women’s rights. Within the elegant rooms of this 19th century private home are the banners, buttons, artwork, and archives of the suffrage story and a feminist library.
This is where the Equal Rights Amendment was born, and thanks to the home’s restoration, you can almost believe that suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns have just stepped out of the room for a moment. (You won’t know those names because you weren’t taught them in school. They should be right up there with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And Carrie Chapman Catt.)
The museum is open to the public on certain days, and quite close to the US Capitol and Supreme Court. No surprise, though, that it is privately owned, not part of the Smithsonian and not run by the federal government. Just like the women’s suffrage movement, if not for a small group of dedicated people who thought our women’s historic struggle for democracy should be remembered, this historic property would no longer be accessible, lost like so much of women’s history.
In spite of peaceful public protests, meetings with Congressmen, parades and petitions, the activists became frustrated with their inability to move the legislation along. In 1917, they began to picket outside the White House. Alice Paul organized the demonstration and managed to keep it going day and night for over 2 years. Often, crowds of harassers would gather and taunt these “silent sentinels,” and it wasn’t unusual for the police to arrest the suffragists for blocking the sidewalk and causing a public nuisance.
Many of them, including Alice Paul, were imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse, a few miles outside the city. Regarding themselves as political prisoners rather than criminals, they refused to eat. They were threatened, beaten, chained, and force fed by a rubber tube through which food was poured into their stomachs. When news of this torture was made public, sentiment began to shift, and eventually, the 19th Amendment became law in 1920.
The Workhouse Museum can be visited today, and is running a series of lectures this spring about women’s long fight for equal status in the US. A small historical marker was installed at the site in 1982 mentioning the role of the workhouse. Some activists are working now to raise funds and erect a more fitting memorial, calling themselves the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Committee. They hope to realize their goal by 2020, the 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment.
It is deeply ironic that Americans know so little about the women who suffered and sacrificed to bring the promise of democracy to half the population. The very values we proclaim the most, our insistence on justice, equality, and human dignity were only available to women after women fought men to get them.
We owe it to ourselves and to them to know our own history. So here’s to Women’s History Month, and to Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Susan B. Anthony and all the others.