Sacha Sinclair

Washington D.C., 2011
Sacha Sinclair

I have been researching and planning to focus on feminism for my dissertation, with the possibility of looking into racial issues also. I chose to visit the Sewall and Belmont house and Museum in Washington DC, because although this museum is a small institution, it houses some fundamental materials in feminism history. The small museum is where ‘NWP’ (National Woman’s Party) moved to during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. The positioning of the museum is important as it is on Constitution Avenue, in the heart of DC. The aim was for the party to be able to put pressure on politicians to gain rights. The museum is dedicated to Alice Paul who was a key figure in the suffrage movement. I wanted to go to this historical place to learn in more detail about the movement and its aims in order for me to narrow down my dissertation focus. Also it was important for me to get a broader understanding and historical context of the movement and how it was received at the time. 

When I approached the museum, I saw the sheer importance of its positioning. The museum is directly opposite the Supreme Court, which allowed the members of the NWP to protest daily. I took notes on key figures, acts and proposals as I walked through the museum, this was a valuable method of gathering information as I have been able to research these points in further detail since my visit. The museum also featured many photographs and original protest banners, some of which I noted down. This allowed me to establish what the actual aims of this early movement were. I was then able to gain a better knowledge of the context and origins of this movement in the US. The museum also featured many newspaper clippings of reactions to what, at the time, was a very extremist movement.  I considered how the women were being conveyed in the media and the effects that it may have had on opposing groups. I also took note of these reactions as I could look at them comparatively when looking into more contemporary ideas of extremist feminism.

A large amount of the museum was dedicated to the suffrage of the women. There were detailed accounts of the imprisonment and starvation that some of these women faced during their fight. This was very useful for me to see as it put the extremity in perspective, as many other ideals seem fairly conservative to me, though considering the time period, they were not.

Finally, dates and proposals were posted throughout the museum, which gave a very useful visual perspective of the types of freedoms the women were fighting for and when they fought for them. The staff at the museum were very helpful as it was a topic they know a lot about. I got a lot of useful information from one of them as she had recently studied feminism at Graduate School. I told her my ideas about looking into extremity and she recommended a book which I purchased, this has been very useful. Similarly she emailed me names of feminists or theorists that ideas parallel with those of the early suffragettes. Looking into this I have been able to begin to identify the transition to more contemporary ideas of extremism, which has allowed me to understand how the early ideas seemed so extreme in a earlier society. The museum also showed photos of counter arguments and organisations of men and women that disagreed alongside their reasoning’s. This was useful as it allowed me understand to an extent, why some women were saying no to freedom. ‘STOP’ for example, were against equality due to fears that it would bring freedom of choice in terms of abortion, and compromise things such as child support and alimony. These can be seen as ‘advantages’ of female oppression that I had not considered prior to my visit to the museum. Similarly the ‘ERA’ expressed fears because equality would mean that women would be in the army, which raised worries of military strength and fears over who would take care of children.

With all my ideas in mind I decided to go to the American History Smithsonian museum. When I saw the Woolworth lunch counter of the first sit-in I felt strongly empathetic. Which caused me again to consider where did African American women stand? There were two struggles concerning their identity taking place, which fight became more important to African American women, and why? I took time to look around the Civil Rights section of the museum and also take notes and I considered parallels in the fights against oppression.

All of information I collected and questions I raised were useful as they sparked an idea for a dissertation focus. I took this information to teacher at my American University: the University of Kansas, he has given me the names of theorists and activists that write on this very topic. So this visit was extremely helpful as it has given me the basis to go and further my research for my dissertation. I also feel I have a better understanding of the context and history of the topic, having been to the place where it took place. Another benefit of this trip is that I met a woman who works directly with congress woman Ileana Ros-Lihtinen, she told me that if I was to visit Washington DC again on a week day she will give me a tour.

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