This year, President Barack Obama designated the Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C. as the latest of more than 400 national monuments in the country. The house, now named the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, is one of only six in the nation dedicated to women, and the only monument celebrating the struggle of women to gain the right to vote.
Illinois State University’s Associate Professor of History Kyle Ciani was part of the team that worked to make the monument a reality. “It’s filled with a wonderful collection of items documenting the work of the National Woman’s Party (NWP),” said Ciani, “and not just from the drive for suffrage, but also the 50-plus-year attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, originally crafted by Alice Paul in 1923.”
The building itself was the home of suffragette Alva Belmont, and in 1929 became the headquarters of the NWP. Located on Capitol Hill next to the Hart Senate Office Building, the site includes an archive of the NWP materials. At the invitation of the house’s executive director, A. Page Harrington, Ciani spent a week in 2010 examining the materials in the archives to assess their research value. “The site personnel knew the house held some very important historical materials, but they needed outside validation,” said Ciani, who was part of a team of historians verifying the value of materials.
Ciani talked of the impact of being surrounded by such historical materials. “It gives you a sense of connection to sit in the space where these women planned their strategies,” she said. Previously unstudied items include the Congressional voting cards that NWP members used to document their appointments with congressmen and senators, and needlework crafted by jailed activists during incarcerations at the Occoquan Workhouse.
Back in her office at Illinois State hangs a photo of the NWP’s “silent sentinels” protesting in front of the White House in 1917. An NWP banner towers next to them. “Activists carried these banners in their protest parades,” said Ciani. “One of these banners hangs in the stairwell at The Belmont-Paul House. When you see how massive they are, and the thick posts that held them, you realize how heavy they are. And how much strength it took—mentally and physically—to carry them.”
Though Ciani originally assisted with the evaluation of the archival material, she still consults as needed. “My job is to give the dedicated staff there an idea of what they have, and what they might do with it,” she said. Now that the site is a national monument, the National Park Service is in charge of museum tours and the gift shop, which provides the staff more time to immerse themselves in restoring the collections and archives. “There are treasure troves of material there,” Ciani added.
Her work with the museum has led Ciani to become part of the working group studying the feasibility of bringing to completion a National Women’s History Museum. The Congressional Commission has drawn together scholars from archival, museum, and university campuses across the United States, and will present their findings to Congress in October. “There is a lot of debate about which direction the museum should take, and it is interesting to connect nationally with so many people who are interested in discussing the idea of a national museum dedicated to women,” said Ciani.
In June, Ciani also participated on a panel at the National Archives in conjunction with its year-long exhibit, “Amending America,” that explores the amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The discussion explored the failed Equal Rights Amendment, penned by Paul. “One of the things I find so interesting about the Equal Rights Amendment is that it has been so contested and debated since its inception in the 1920s,” said Ciani. She lamented the fact that younger women are unaware of the history of the amendment, or even what the amendment was. “Women have always been part of the solutions of history, but they are an often-ignored element to those movements,” she said. “The recognition of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument is one step toward changing that arena.”