Miss Alice Paul, Author of the ERA

Beloved “lavender landlady”

Sewell-Belmont House, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

It was the late 60’s in Washington, DC. The old house on Constitution Avenue smelled faintly of lavender and old ladies. I had taken up residence in the Sewall-Belmont House, one of the oldest brick buildings in the United States. My window opened onto a pristine old-fashioned garden with ice-cream chairs and purple irises in fragrant bloom.

As we toured the musty old library deep inside the house, my new landlady introduced herself and outlined her simple rules:

“I am Miss Alice Paul, head of the National Woman’s Party. If you wish to live here, you must become an associate member. Your dues are included in your rent, which will be $60.00 each month, utilities included.”

“Miss Paul”, as she was known even to her closest friends, had been a militant suffragette and was the author of the Equal Rights Amendment. And Miss Paul had certain clear expectations of her young residents.

“Girls, we must act quickly. There’s going to be a vote on the Senate floor in a few days. I need you to visit as many Senators as you can to promote our cause. Getting into men’s clubs is all very well, but it is the law that is important. The most fundamental way to work for peace is to work for power for women. We still have no power. Now, girls, off you go!”

If eventually ratified, this 26th Amendment to the Constitution would assure all women equality of rights under the law. At the tender age of 21, I found myself in the midst of a history-making event! I cringed, however, remembering I had recently let the air out of Senator Ted Kennedy’s tires for thoughtlessly having taken my parking place (again) alongside the old Senate building.

Fast forward a few decades, the ERA is still not ratified, and women still have no power, and I wonder what Miss Paul must be thinking as she spins in her grave.

In a moment of nostalgia, I paid a return visit to the old house to find the residential wings where I had lived so happily had been replaced with the new Hart Senate Building. Inside the foyer of the main house, instead of my lavender landlady, stood a beautiful marble bust of Miss Paul, and her office still held her small carved wooden desk where I would place my monthly rent check.

Her presence there is still palpable. I feel her strength of character, her sweetness, her single-minded sense of purpose on behalf of all women. I smell her lavender scent. I wish she were here now.

@Adelia Ritchie

A long time denizen of the Pacific Northwest, scientist, educator, artist, farmer, chicken wrangler, editor & writer at SalishMagazine.org.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store