"In Their Footsteps": Women's Suffrage in Washington, DC

August 26, officially Women's Equality Day, marked the 96th anniversary of ratification of the 19th amendment, which extended suffrage to women. So my interest was piqued when I learned of a women's suffrage walking tour the following week, sponsored by the National Women's History Museum and led by licensed tour guide Deb Greenbush (shown below).

We met at the National Archives metro station and ended up at the Sewell-Belmont House (now Belmont-Paul Women's Equality Monument as of just a month or so ago). The tour was a partial history, based on the stops along the way, but Greenbush provided the group a good sense of what happened here and nationwide. Along the way, I thought of how Julia Wilbur connected to the people and places we discussed.


From the Metro, we walked across the street to the small plaza at 7th St. and Indiana Ave. NW. A 1882 statue to Temperance watches over all the neighborhood, near the former Central Market and a bit rowdy then and now. It once was also a fountain, Greenbush said, as the "cooling waters" were thought to temper the urge for alcohol. 

Temperance was the route by which many women became politically active. In the early 1800s, cases of alcoholism spiked, and wives bore the brunt of husbands' alcohol abuse. Many women made the leap from not only concern about alcohol's moral and physical effects, but also the reality that married women had virtually no independent legal rights, even with a drunken bum as the "head of household."  They found their voice and their organizing abilities. In the 1840s, Susan B. Anthony, then a teacher in a small upstate New York town, began her activism at a women's pro-temperance meeting. Shortly after, when she couldn't speak at a Sons of Temperance meeting, she formed her own group and eventually went down a far different road.

Julia Wilbur attended many temperance meetings in Rochester in the 1840s and definitely supported the connection between temperance, woman's rights, and abolitionism. On July 21, 1844, she wrote about hearing Lucretia Mott speak at a Quaker Hicksite meeting. After first discoursing on religious matters: 

...came the truly admirable part of her discourse. Her views in relation to the “mental & spiritual degradation of women” Peace, Temperance & AntiSlavery were all given in a very happy manner…The Temperance cause she considers as the great, the glorious reform of the day. Its unparalleled success should be the beacon start to encourage us in the promotion of the other great reforms of the day... 

And so it did.

National Council of Negro Women, 633 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

To the right of the Temperance Statue, geographically, is the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune. It built in part on another group, pre-suffrage. In the 1880s, Mary Church Terrell launched the National Association of Colored Women, which had women's suffrage as one of its goals.

African American women faced obstacles related to both sex and race, as she observed, while black men and white women basically had to deal with one obstacle each. The main (predominantly white) suffrage organizations did not exactly shine in their treatment of black women. Pre-war abolitionists mostly, many of these women went a different direction as they sought the vote from white men in power, mostly excluding black women from their inner circles. A combination of frustration, racism, and classism also played a role.

Julia Wilbur was not immune from prejudice, especially related to class. But she had both black and white female friends (unusual for the time) and formed an interracial group of women who tried to register for local elections in 1869. Year after year, she attended the annual meetings of the National Woman Suffrage Association, but she warned Susan B. Anthony on at least one occasion about racist language spoken from the dais. January 17, 1874:

...to see S.B. Anthony. Had good talk with her about suffrage &c. [etc.] & about the reasons of colored people not attending conventions. Mrs. Stolkey speaks of them in such a way they feel hurt & insulted. I cannot blame them. S.B.A. knows this too."

General George Meade Statue, 333 Constitution Avenue

A stop to look at the huge statue of General George Meade served as a reminder about the impact of the Civil War on women's suffrage. The Civil War diverted attention from women's rights as a cause. At the same time, women took on new roles--in the case of Julia Wilbur and hundreds of other women, giving them the opportunity to leave home to work as teachers, relief agents, and nurses. Black women in the thousands escaped slavery and moved to Washington, Alexandria, and other Union-occupied areas. And many more women, white and black, in the North and South, took on new roles at home when male members of the family went off to war.

A post-war debate related to suffrage raged. Push for suffrage for men and women or focus on getting the vote for black men? This became a divisive issue, leading to a bitter split and the formation of two groups.

U.S. Capitol

Looking to our right as we walked east on Constitution Avenue, we saw the Capitol a few blocks away. Greenbush told us that a marble statue of Anthony, Mott, and Stanton, presented by the National Women's Party in 1921, sat in a crypt until 1997, when it was relocated to the Capitol Rotunda. (The National Women's History Museum had to raise more than $100,000 for the move.) 

As I have written in other blog posts, Julia Wilbur frequently visited the Capitol to sit in the House and Senate galleries and follow the debates of the day. 

On January 11, 1871, she came for a very different reason. The House Judiciary Committee agreed to meet with a group of women, with Victoria Woodhull  (a particularly colorful and attractive person) as the lead speaker.  Julia joined the delegation, although sat in the background:

"Victoria C. Woodhull made remarks & read her argument to prove that the Constitution gives equal suffrage to all. It was a very forcible point....They [the Congressmen] took several exceptions, but were ably replied to by the speakers. It was all very interesting, deeply so. I thought it a great privilege to be present on such an occasion."

That meeting, and many other attempts, obviously didn't get very far, which led us to the last stop of the walking tour.

Belmont House, 144 Constitution Ave. NE

By 1890s, the two main suffrage organizations that had split over the 15th amendment reunited. Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902; Susan B. Anthony in 1906.

A new generation of women took the lead, seeking new methods to advance the cause to include public protests and more confrontational tactics. They formed the National Women's Party in 1913. They and the by-then more mainstream National American Women's Suffrage Association (the result of the two groups merging) succeeded in getting President Wilson to support passage of the 19th amendment.

After all those years, the requisite number of states ratified it, and it became law on August 26, 1920.

As for the building, the last stop on our walking tour, the National Women's Party purchased the house in the 1920s and used it as a center of operation. In 2016, it became part of the National Park Service as the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality Monument

I realize I am giving extremely short shrift to this history, but hope it will inspire you to read further. The bottom line is that far from a direct "seek the vote-get the vote" effort, the suffrage movement had advances and setbacks, personalities, fierce debates about strategy and tactics--in other words, all the makings of a revolutionary social movement that resonate today. 

Print Friendly and PDF