On top of a brick fireplace, against the backdrop of light blue walls in the dining room of the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill, sits a framed photo of eight women gathered around a table, smiling, seemingly enjoying a meal and one another’s company.
This not an ordinary gathering, however; the photo shows the two female Supreme Court justices at each end, surrounded by six women who were then U.S. Senators.
The 1997 photograph, taken in the same room where it now sits, serves as a reminder of the progress the women’s rights movement has made in just less than a century.
Years earlier, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said, suffragists gathered in the Sewall-Belmont House to plan strategy to gain the right to vote.
“I know those women sitting in a circle in the bedroom upstairs would be so proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Hutchison said.
Ninety-two years to the day after 8,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of the 19th amendment, two of the now 14 female Senators and other guests gathered at the Sewall-Belmont House Thursday to celebrate the women’s equality movement and the preservation of its historic home.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Home and Garden Television and Save America’s Treasures honored the home as part of the “Restore America: A Salute to Preservation” campaign.
The project donated $75,000 to the continued restoration of the house, and throughout March, HGTV will air a public service announcement and “Celebrity Salute” touting the restoration of the landmark.
Just as the bipartisan group of women came together at the Sewall-Belmont House in 1997, the two Senators who spoke at the event proved that sisterhood often trumps ideology.
“When we come together, we always win,” Hutchison said to audience applause. She cited examples of mammogram coverage, homemaker IRAs and pension security for women as examples of the female Members working together across party lines.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) later added that women in the Senate have bridged “what may seem to be unbridgeable gaps” to work for women’s issues. She noted that women have teamed up on behalf of the women of Afghanistan and Iraq, but added that “there’s so much work to be done.”
Hutchison spoke of women’s contributions to society since achieving suffrage. She said pre-war Afghanistan and Iraq were examples of how a lack of women’s participation can harm a society.
She credited the participation of women in all aspects of American life as contributing to its strength. Hutchison cited Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that the strength of the United States was in the superiority of its women.
Women “are the reason our country is the greatest on Earth,” she said.
Clinton also spoke of the importance of historical preservation.
“When you think about American history, this house has seen most of it,” Clinton said, adding that it was especially important because the Louisiana Purchase was written there, which included Arkansas, the home state of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton said history must be maintained for people to touch and feel. She said such historical monuments need to be kept “a living, breathing presence amongst us.”
She said the idea for Save America’s Treasures stemmed from searching for a way to mark the millennium. Founded by executive order in 1998, when Clinton was first lady, the program is a “public-private partnership” that encourages preservation of historical artifacts and monuments, including the Star Spangled Banner, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
The Sewall-Belmont House was built by Robert Sewall in 1800, and in 1929 the National Woman’s Party purchased the home with the contributions of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. It has been home to Senators, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin and later to the National Woman’s Party and its founder, Alice Paul.
The National Woman’s Party, which owns and operates the Sewall-Belmont House, will use the funds for work on the roof and for exterior restoration on the house that has not yet been completed, Sewall-Belmont spokeswoman Laura Nisbet said.
Restoration began in 1999 to stabilize the exterior and repair the interior, including structural repairs in the foundation and repairing the wooden floors.
After the program, visitors wandered through the halls of Sewall-Belmont House, which although restored still has the “old home” feel of creaky floors and high ceilings. Each room contains artifacts and photos from the suffrage movement, including Henry Clay’s desk from the Senate and a tribute to black suffragists.
The event kicks off Women’s History Month observances on the 85th anniversary of women’s suffrage for the Sewall-Belmont House. Upcoming events include a children’s presentation on suffrage, a book launch, a presentation of a documentary on Shirley Chisholm, and a presentation on Dolley Madison and other founding women. For more information, see https://www.sewallbelmont.org.