I Am the Antiquities Act — Hear Me Roar

The Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

President Obama designated a national monument for women's equality today. Here’s why that matters.

As candidates openly compete for the favor of women in this frenzied election year, it's easy to forget that just a century ago, women couldn't even vote. Only the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment changed that. And we've yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, four decades after Congress passed it.

Both of those milestones in the long and continuing struggle for women's rights are tied to a 20th-century Quaker activist, Alice Paul.

On Tuesday, President Obama ensured that Americans will remember, for all time, the work of this great woman and the movement she advanced. He designated the Washington home where she based her operations — the Sewall-Belmont House — a national monument: the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument.

A social worker with a Ph.D. in economics, Paul formed the National Woman's Party in 1917. She led the movement to secure passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women's right to vote. She authored the initial draft of the Equal Rights Amendment, prohibiting discrimination by gender, in 1923. And she was instrumental in adding protections against discrimination based on sex to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul died in 1977 at the age of 92. Her work, though, lives on.

Alice Paul standing over ratification banner hanging from the balcony of the National Woman’s Party headquarters, with members watching outside the building below
Credit: Credit: Library of Congress

The Sewall-Belmont House remains the headquarters for the National Woman's Party, whose members have penned more than 600 pieces of federal, state, and local legislation to advance the cause of equal rights. Standing in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the building has long been a shrine to the advancement of American democracy, as the seat of decades of courageous, innovative, and compelling advocacy that became a blueprint for the Civil Rights movement and others that followed.

It deserves to be preserved and available for future generations.

Ever since President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law in 1906, the Antiquities Act has provided presidents with a vital tool for setting aside millions of acres of endangered American places that hold unique natural, cultural, or historical significance. It’s one way we make sure future generations can experience the natural splendor of our nation the way the first Americans saw it centuries ago, whether we're recalling the redwood forests of Muir Woods in California, the great stone edifice of Devil's Tower in Wyoming, or the Gulf Islands National Seashore along the coasts of Mississippi and Florida. And it's part of the way we tell the story of America to future generations.

The voices of women like Alice Paul, though, have been dimmed to whispers in the telling of this story. Of more than 400 national parks around the country, for example, just eight specifically commemorate women's history.

The absence goes well beyond symbolism. There is nothing more central to our identity, as Americans, than the stories we learn about our past. It is those stories, more than anything else, that teach us who we are, where we come from, and how we got here. It's essential that we get that right.

We have a long way to go before our national story faithfully reflects the contributions of women, people of color, Americans Indians, and others whose lives were brushed to the margins of our history books. Today's designation of the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument helps restore those lives to the page.

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