Sewall-Belmont House Part of National Capital Parks - East Washington, D.C. Visited: July 14, 2006 NPS Site Visited: Not an Official Site NPS Affiliate Site Visited: 15 of 26 Second Visit: November 10, 2006 Local Website
WHAT IS IT? The current home of the National Women's Party and longtime home of its suffragist founder Alice Paul.
BEAUTY (3/10) The House is a three-story redbrick Georgian-style concoction whose northwestern property lines are snugly bordered by the hulking Hart Senate Office Building, a modernist reinterpretation of its neo-classical office building neighbors. The Sewall-Belmont House feels like it wandered into the wrong part of town.
The House's interior makes little sense. The Save America’s Treasures-sponsored restoration looks nice but has no apparent order. It is unclear which time period the house and/or each room is supposed to represent. Our guides were unable to tell us much about the furnishings, their origins or how they fit in historically with their surroundings.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) None of the pioneering 19th Amendment work and suffragist struggling happened here. How could that be? Well, the House didn't become NWP headquarters until 1929, nine years after women's constitutional right to vote was ratified. Alice Paul lived here from 1929 until 1972. During this time she authored the Equal Rights Amendment and steadfastly worked for its passage into law. The ERA remains three states short of ratification.
The best part of the tour was the House's many original documents, photos and artwork. We especially enjoyed the hand-sewn NWP banner that screamed its message of voting rights for women outside the Woodrow Wilson White House.
CROWDS (6/10) One other person joined us on our 2 p.m. house tour. The 1 p.m. tour also had 3 people. We doubt that the numbers could swell so dramatically as to negatively impact your visit.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) The Sewall-Belmont House is located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 2nd Avenue NE, just two blocks west of the U.S. Capitol, one block north of the U.S. Supreme Court and two blocks north of the Library of Congress. Strangely, Michael has never had trouble finding street parking in this part of town. This visit was no exception and we did not even utilize the block of 2nd Avenue street parking set aside for Sewall-Belmont visitors.
The nearest D.C. Metro (subway) stops are a deceptively long half-mile away. They are Union Station (on the Red Line) and Capitol South (on the Orange and Blue Lines).
You must visit the Site via guided tour. Tours leave Tuesday through Friday at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2. Saturday tours depart at noon, 1, 2 and 3. No tours on Sunday or Monday. Your window of touring opportunity is smaller than it may appear. If you are not at the front door as the previous tour ends and the next one begins, doors lock, gates close and you are left to entertain yourself for another hour.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) The bookstore is the size of a large broom closet. In fact, Gab suspects that was the original function of the space. We didn’t have much time to browse since a guide plus one visitor challenged the room’s capacity. There were more commemorative plates than books. The books available were focused solely on women’s suffrage and did not expand further into other feminist topics. Gab walked away with a complimentary copy of Ms. Magazine which felt like a paradoxical prize after tolerating our tour. Of course, you can purchase your DVD copy of Iron Jawed Angels here.
COSTS (2/5) $5 per person suggested donation.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) NPS affiliate sites utilize private docents rather than Park Service Rangers. The visitor rarely sees the benefit of this trade-off. Two young docents led us through the House with varying levels of educational success.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) The Sewall-Belmont House, home of the National Women's Party, was the last place we expected to see glaring examples of male dominance and female subservience.
Our tour was uncomfortably monopolized by our young male tour guide who consistently intimidated his female cohort, the better host and more knowledgeable historian, back into a secondary role.
Alice Paul would have started rolling in her grave had she not already been tossing and turning because of a traveling photography exhibit highlighting women in the U.S. Senate. Nearly all of the photographs depict our female senators in a less than powerful light. Is this the worst or is it this one?
We vocally wondered, “is this exhibit some kind of sick, subversive joke?” while both our guides offered effusive praise for the photographer and her show. Maybe our audible scoffing noises weren't loud enough. We were repulsed. These women are United States Senators, the definition of power. There must be some shots that show them in control. It is unfair that these aggressively demeaning representations and power myths are perpetuated and allowed reinforcement in the 21st century. It is disheartening that they have a place at a site that honors the suffragist movement and supposedly celebrates how far women have come.
FUN (2/10) Our Sewall-Belmont experience was so ridiculously farcical that we expected Gloria Steinem to mystically appear announcing, “smile, you're on feminist candid camera. You saw the blatant inequality purveyed by a dominant ethos and did nothing. Let's talk it out.”
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10) Our hosts told us that visits and interest spiked after the HBO's showing of Iron-Jawed Angels. We were no exception. Iron-Jawed Angels introduced us to the amazing National Women's Party story and left us eager to learn more. It also had Gab frothing with riot grrrl feminist spirit for a good month.
Our Sewall-Belmont House tour got us worked up in a different way. Let's just say we didn't leave angry at Woodrow Wilson and historic inequalities. Put Iron-Jawed Angels on your netflix queue and skip the Capitol Hill visit. Shelter yourself from the post-feminist realities of the sexuality-as-power 21st century world and the cynical politics of Washington, D.C. The belief in the goodness of the 19th Amendment crusaders and the strength of women senators is much easier from home.
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