NORMAL, Ill. (AP) – Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has drawn attention to women in politics, but a relatively new national monument in which an Illinois State University faculty member has been involved shows that women’s political activism started long before today or even the raucous 1960s.
“Women’s activism has been going on since certainly the colonial era,” said Kyle Ciani, an associate professor of history. “It’s a history of ordinary people. All the women involved were our grandmas and great-grandmas.”
Ciani was part of a team involved in getting national monument status for the Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C. now known as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.
At one time, the Sewall-Belmont House was the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, founded in 1916 by Alice Paul, the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment proposal, in 1923.
The building houses an extensive collection of books and artifacts related to women’s suffrage and equality.
“It became a gathering place of feminism,” Ciani said. “It’s important for people to step into these spaces and see where people actually were doing the work and to see it in proximity to the Capitol.”
The building, which dates back to the early 1800s, is on Capitol Hill, literally in the shadow of the Hart Senate Office Building.
One of the unique collections that it holds contains calling cards and extensive notes from the women who met with senators to lobby them for passage of an Equal Rights Amendment, said Ciani.
“They would come back and document their meetings,” Ciani noted. “You could see over the years how these women were relentless.”
Some of their activities, such as protesting in front of the White House, were considered radical in their day and resulted in jail time, she said.
A photograph in Ciani’s office in Schroeder Hall shows one of those protests.
“They, as the photograph shows, were in the president’s face and that was a radical move,” she said.
It took another president, Barack Obama, to designate the house as a national monument.
“I want young girls and boys to come here 10, 20, 100 years from now to know that women fought for equality, it was not just given to them,” Obama said at a dedication ceremony in April as reported by The Associated Press.
In addition to Paul, the monument also honors Alva Belmont, a primary benefactor of the National Woman’s Party and its president from 1920-1933.
Ciani’s involvement goes back to 2010, when Page Harrington, executive director of the house and museum, asked her to join a team of historians evaluating materials in the archives.
Harrington was one of her students when Ciani taught women’s history at the University of San Diego, before she joined the ISU faculty.
Being part of the National Park Service system will provide more resources for cataloging the collection, making it more accessible for academic research, Ciani said. The higher profile also is likely to draw more visitors.
“More children and other people are going to be exposed to this story and that’s important,” said Ciani.
Most textbooks focus on the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote and not much beyond that, she said. The monument will “broaden the experience,” Ciani said, and “show them some ordinary folks were involved in this.”
The monument’s website said the house “stands as a testament to our nation’s continued struggle for equality” and “tells the story of a community of women who dedicated their lives to the fight for women’s rights.”
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