We’re going to go on a short virtual tour of a section of the museum at Belmont-Paul. Now when we do tours in person, we like to make them interactive, so you’re not just listening to us talk the whole time. And that is really in keeping with the spirit of this house, which for the past 90 years has been the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, an important location in the struggle for women’s social, political and economic equality.
Because this is a recording, we can’t have the conversation in person, but I’m going to ask you questions as we go along. There are no wrong answers to these questions. They’re just offered to give you something to think about.
Here you see a picture of the Hall of Portraits in the museum. We’re now in the hallway that is just beyond that original front door you saw in the first picture. We’re looking at the wall that you would be on your left if that door was behind you. You can see a couple of paintings of women on the walls. And then on two wooden pedestals there are white marble busts. A bust is a statue that shows a person’s head and shoulders. Closest to us in the picture here is a bust of Susan B. Anthony. If people know one name in the story of women’s rights, they usually have heard of Susan B. Anthony. And then farther away you see a bust of Alva Belmont. She was a wealthy woman who donated a lot of the money for the National Woman’s Party. She’s the Belmont of the Belmont-Paul. Beyond the bust of Alva you see a statue of Joan of Arc and a stairway going up to the second floor. On the landing of that stairway, there’s a large banner in gold fabric with purple lettering. The lettering says “We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising Women.” To be enfranchised means to have the right to vote and another word for that is “suffrage.” People who fight for the right to vote are called “suffragists.” So imagine that you’re standing in the entrance way with me here. Behind you is a door with a big stained-glass window above it.
SWITCH TO THE STAINED GLASS WINDOW picture.
Here’s a view of the window which looks like a big hand-held fan in blue, red, and yellow glass. There’s a circle with the house number, 144, on it. On either side of the doorway there are side windows made of the same color glass.
NEXT PICTURE OF THE HALLWAY
Now we’re looking at a picture of the right side of the hallway, with the doorway behind us. You can see some more paintings of women on the walls along with two more busts on wood pedestals. The one closest to us is Alice Paul, the founder of the National Woman’s Party, and then the bust that’s farther away here is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Visitors to the museum now come in from the back, right over here where you see people standing. But in Alice’s time, people entered through the door that’s behind you, the stained-glass door, and stood here where you are standing right now.
Alice Paul was always very aware of images in her political strategy, paying attention to the way women looked and how they presented themselves to make their argument for women’s equality. And that carries over into the way they designed their headquarters as well. So this hallway looks very similar to the way it did when Alice Paul was running her political action organization from this headquarters.
As you look around at the portraits and the statues and busts, what story do you think Alice Paul was telling here in the headquarters? Who were the women of the National Woman’s Party, do you think?
Over on the right of the photo, there’s large mirror with an ornate, fancy, gold plated frame around it and in the middle of the big mirror, there is a sticker that looks like another frame. So if you were standing in this hallway, looking at yourself in the mirror, you would see yourself in the frame. It looks like you become one of the people pictured on the walls.
Do you see yourself here? Do you fit in with the other people on the walls? Why or why not?
If you answered that you don’t feel like you fit here, you would not be the only one who felt like you were outside of the story that Alice Paul and other white women’s rights activists were telling about what a suffragist looked like. Black women especially have often felt pushed aside or ignored by leaders of the women’s rights movement. But African American women also stood up and made themselves heard and seen by those who have tried to exclude them.
Most of the exhibits in the rest of the museum are telling the story of the campaign that made Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party famous: the fight for women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. A big milestone in that fight was the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, but by then, women had been working for the vote for more than seven decades. We often mark the beginning of the woman suffrage movement with the Seneca Falls Convention organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848. As far as we know, the only African American at the Seneca Falls Convention was Frederick Douglass, but that convention led to many other women’s rights meetings around the country, and Black women and men were an important part of the growing movement. One of the prominent women attending women’s rights meetings was Sojourner Truth.
SWITCH TO THE PICTURE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH
Here we have a photograph of Sojourner Truth. She’s seated with her arm resting on a small table to her left. She’s holding a bit of knitting in her left hand and is wearing a white shawl and bonnet. Sojourner Truth was born enslaved in 1797. Her name was originally Isabella Baumfree but she changed her name as a free woman to Sojourner Truth because she believed it was her mission to travel around the country, or to “sojourn,” and reveal the truth to people. She shared her faith and told the truth about her experiences as a Black woman. One of the ways she supported herself in her work was by selling photographs like this one printed on card stock. In addition to her name, the card is printed with the slogan “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Photography was new technology in the mid-nineteenth century. Photographs were sometimes called “shadows,” so that’s what that means. Sojourner Truth then was on the cutting-edge of marketing herself and her mission through images like this one. And that was a long time before Alice Paul became well-known for her use of imagery.
There’s even a secret message in this picture. There’s yarn from her knitting draped across the skirt of Sojourner Truth’s dress. Do you see that?
Does the shape of the yarn remind you of anything? Can you see a picture?
So it looks like a map of the United States.
What secret message might Sojourner Truth have been sending when she arranged the yarn that way before her picture was taken?
One of the places where Sojourner Truth told the truth was at women’s rights conventions. There were lots of meetings across the country and around the world where people gathered to talk about the issue of women’s rights. Sojourner Truth delivered one of her most famous speeches at a woman’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. She called out the white women and the men in attendance for ignoring the voices of Black women.
“I AM a woman’s rights,” she declared. “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?”
If you really want to talk about women’s equality, she was saying, then listen to Black women, because we embody the equality that you’re claiming.
If you are familiar with this speech, you might have heard it called “Ain’t I A Woman?” Sojourner Truth probably never said “Ain’t I A Woman?” The version I just quoted was published by Truth’s friend Marius Robinson a few weeks after she gave it. The “Ain’t I a Woman” version was published twelve years later by a white anti-slavery activist named Frances Gage. In Gage’s version Sojourner Truth sounded like she had a southern dialect. But that would not have been the way she spoke. She was born in New York; her first language was Dutch, so she had a Dutch accent, not a southern accent. Many scholars have pointed out that the effect of the inaccurate version is to minimize her, make her sound less powerful. Maybe Frances Gage and other white women couldn’t handle the truth that Sojourner Truth was telling. By claiming her equality, Sojourner Truth was maybe disrupting the story that the white activists believed.
PICTURE OF SOJOURNER TRUTH STATUE IN THE MUSEUM
In the first picture of the hallway, you saw a bust of Susan B. Anthony on the left side. But right now, the Susan B. Anthony bust is not in the museum. It is on display at the Library of Congress in their suffrage exhibit called “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.” So while Susan B. Anthony is out visiting, we have a statue of Sojourner Truth on that pedestal. This bronze sculpture of Sojourner Truth is part of a series of works created by Inge Ruth Hardison in 1968 called Negro Giants in History. In 1995, for the 75th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs gave this statue to the National Woman’s Party. In my research, I haven’t been able to determine yet why they gave that gift, but I imagine that it was in part to make a point about the story that the National Woman’s Party was telling here in the museum about what a woman suffragist looks like.
This is a statue that shows Sojourner Truth’s whole body, not just her head and shoulders. It is not white, like the marble busts. The green is the color of that bronze becomes as it is exposed to air. That’s called the patina. And the figure is elongated, which means that her arms, legs, and neck look longer than they would on a real person. Her right foot is in front as if she is striding forward, and her right arm is resting on her right leg above the knee and her hand is clenched in a fist.
What story is this Sojourner Truth statue telling?
Although this statue was on display in the museum at some point, it wasn’t here in the Hall of Portraits, and when I began working here four years ago, this statue wasn’t on display at all. But now we have Sojourner Truth here in a place of importance. Now, maybe the style of this statue doesn’t match the other artwork in the Hall of Portraits. Maybe it looks a little out of place, a little disruptive.
So if you feel as if you’ve been left out of the picture in the work for change, be inspired by Sojourner Truth and those like her. Take a stand, stir things up, be seen. You are part of this story. See yourself here.
What do you think? If you are watching this on Facebook, share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
- 15 minutes, 4 seconds
Explore the Hall of Portraits in the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument and learn about the women pictured here.
What story was Alice Paul telling about what a suffragist looked like?
Do you see yourself here?
What story is the statue of Sojourner Truth telling in the Hall of Portraits?
There is so much to explore in the Origins Gallery exhibits. For this video, we’re just going to focus on a couple of treasured items in the NWP collection. Alice and the other NWP members drew inspiration and courage from the women who came before them, and they especially were inspired by women who owned a couple of items of furniture that are in the Origins Gallery.
First we have this Victorian walnut cylinder roll-top desk with a felt-lined tray top. The cylinder front features a recessed burled walnut veneer panel and two square wooden drawer pulls. The lower cabinet section of desk has two doors featuring recessed burled walnut veneer panels as well. In this photo, the roll-top is closed although sometimes we open it so that visitors to the museum can see the interior which has a central well area flanked by a drawer below pigeonholes on each side. According to an oral history provided by Alice Paul, this desk originally belonged to Susan B. Anthony and was donated to Alice by Anthony's former secretary, Rachel Brill Ezekiel, in December 1913, just a few years after Susan B. Anthony's death in 1906. If people know one name in the story of the fight for woman suffrage, they usually have heard of Susan B. Anthony because of her tireless campaign throughout her life in the cause of votes for women. Often, when Alice Paul was criticized for the NWP’s confrontational tactics, she would point back to Susan B. Anthony to say basically that what she was doing was a continuation of Susan B Anthony’s work.
Next to the Susan B. Anthony desk in the Origins Gallery, there is a Victorian wood chair with spool-turned spindles in the Elizabethan revival style. A rectangular cushion hangs on the chair back. The spool-turned arms have upholstered elbow rests. You might notice that the rectangular upholstered seat is much deeper than on modern chairs. It was designed to accommodate the woman's fashion of the 1850s to 1860s, when this chair was made. Well-to-do women’s dresses had large bustles in the back and so they couldn’t sit in a chair with a normal- sized seat. So even chairs were gendered in the mid-19th century. This chair once belonged to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony’s dear friend and one of the founding mothers of the American women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and that was one of the first times that reform-minded people came together to talk specifically about the issue of women’s rights. It was Elizabeth Cady Stanton who insisted on the most contentious demand put forth at that convention, that women should have the right to vote. Even among those radical reformers in attendance at that conference, woman suffrage seemed like a ridiculous idea. Have you ever been told that your ideas were ridiculous? In a world where women and men didn’t even sit on the same chairs, Elizabeth Cady Stanton imagined a world in which women’s voices were heard and valued in politics and in government. This chair here was given to the NWP by Harriot Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth’s daughter and herself a suffragist and labor activist. So before the NWP ever had a collection or ran a museum, they had these two pieces of furniture to connect them to the past.
In the museum on the wall next to the desk and chair, there is this picture of members of the National Woman’s Party posing outside with the Susan B. Anthony desk. Alva Belmont is the one sitting in front of the desk and Alice Paul is in the foreground with more than 20 women gathered behind them. This photo gives you a sense of how the NWP connected their identity and purpose to the work of the early suffragists. What treasured items in your house connect you with the past?
And then next to that picture on the wall is this photograph of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton seated at a small table. You can see that Susan B Anthony is looking down at a book turning the pages and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Stanton is writing on a piece of paper next to her. This photograph was taken in 1890. At this point, Stanton and Anthony had published three volumes of the History of Women’s Suffrage and in this picture, you can see that that they are portraying themselves in their later years as the elder scholars of the movement. 1890 was also the year that Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded National American Woman Suffrage Association, bringing together two suffrage associations that formed after the Civil War. We call that organization NAWSA for short. When Alice Paul entered the suffrage movement, NAWSA was the main suffrage organization in the U.S. By that point, Anthony and Stanton had both died. So Alice was joining a movement that was led by second- and third-generation suffragists, many of whom had known and worked with Stanton and Anthony. Alice Paul didn’t.
But even though Alice Paul had not known either of these founders, she saw herself as continuing their work, taking up their mission. In a display case in the Origins Gallery, you’ll find this trowel, gold-plated with a wooden handle. The inscription on it reads: IN MEMORY OF THE SENECA FALLS CONVENTION OF 1848 PRESENTED BY ITS SOLE SURVIVOR CHARLOTTE L. PEIRCE IN THANKSGIVING FOR PROGRESS MADE BY WOMEN AND IN HONOR OF THE NATIONAL WOMAN'S PARTY WHICH WILL CARRY ON THE STRUGGLE SO BRAVELY BEGUN." So the NWP had the blessing of the only woman who attended the Seneca Falls Convention who was still alive in 1920, declaring that they were the ones continuing the work for women’s equality started in 1848. In another video, we’re going to talk about how the NAWSA leadership might have felt about these claims of Alice Paul.
Underneath the photo of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is another portrait of a founding suffragist, Frederick Douglass. Right now, if you were in the museum, you’d see this portrait but maybe no real explanation of why Frederick Douglass is here. What did Alice Paul draw on from the work of Frederick Douglass? Well actually, this photograph is representing a part of the story that Alice Paul probably might have wished that we didn’t tell. But we will in the next video. Stay tuned.
- 8 minutes, 58 seconds
Take a look at two treasured items in the National Woman's Party collection displayed in the Origins Gallery of the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument. What items in your home connect you with the past?
Last updated: September 1, 2020