Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library

As the first library in the country entirely dedicated to the study of the history of women in the United States and abroad, the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum has become one of the most important resources for the study of women’s history.

Just down the street from the Library of Congress, the great quantity of resources in the area provides women and girls with the opportunity to discover history in the words of the many women who were pioneers in areas including politics, medicine, social sciences, literature, and economics.

The History of the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library

When the library opened to the public in 1943, the legal, economic, political, and social status of women in the United States was still unequal in many respects, including education. Women were continually denied admission to many of the largest libraries in the country. The National Woman’s Party had the vision to open a library that would provide resources to women about their own history as well as offer opportunities to join the movement for equal rights across the country and throughout the world. The library provided researchers with books about women, by women, and for women.

In 1940, the NWP created a committee to convert the Old Carriage House, once the stable of the Sewall property, into a library. Florence Bayard Hilles, former President of the NWP, was appointed the chairman of the committee. The committee hired a female architect, Elise Dupont, to design and renovate the new library. By October, 1941, the committee completed the physical conversion of the library, and Mary Elizabeth Downey, the former librarian of the U.S. Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission installed the collection. On November 12, 1941, the NWP dedicated the Alva Belmont Feminist Library, the first feminist library in the United States.

Originally, the library was set up to house the Alva Belmont Book Collection, in storage since 1933. However, excited by the valuable addition to the NWP headquarters, members began accepting donations from all interested individuals in an effort to significantly increase the resources available. The library grew quickly as Downey began to actively promote the new library with calls for books, articles, scrapbooks and additional materials. She also initiated an impressive educational program of teas, lectures and book discussions. By 1943, the library was a booming institution for researchers and NWP members and a source of pride for the organization.

On December 12, 1943, the library was rededicated in the name of Florence Bayard Hilles, the chairman of the library committee. Hilles was one of the founders of the National Woman’s Party and the members of the party believed she was one of the most outstanding feminists in the country. She picketed alongside Alice Paul, went to prison for picketing the White House, and went on hunger strikes. Additionally, she continued to play an active role in the NWP after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, when the Equal Rights Amendment was written and the fight for women’s equality continued.
The library continued to be an important resource on the NWP into the 1960s. However, with falling membership numbers and few monetary resources, the library quickly became neglected and fell into disrepair. On September 17, 1998 the NWP rededicated the Florence Bayard Hilles Library in order to publicize and gather support for the renewed restoration of the library. The project included cleaning and cataloging rare books, indexing old photographs, and preserving scrapbooks and personal papers.

Today, the restoration of the collection continues to be a priority for the museum. Archivists continue to work on preserving the important collection for the use of future scholars. The library remains a major resource for researchers and scholars interested in the rare and undiscovered treasures within that tell the story of the National Woman’s Party and the early 20th century struggle for suffrage and equal rights for women.