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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Listening to History: It Was All So Breathless

Butler Franklin was born in 1899 and died in 2003. At the time of this interview she was 96 years old, partially blind and deaf, living at Fall Hill, her family's home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Ms. Franklin knew Alice Paul through her aunt, Alva Belmont.

Partial transcript of an interview with Butler Franklin by Kathleen Hunter, tape-recorded February 1995.

Question: What I'd like to do is start with your telling me about living at the Sewall-Belmont House--what it was like to live there? Where did you live in the house?
She [Alice Paul] gave me . . . a little secret room and it had its own secret stairway. It had a private little bathroom and everything.

Question: Where is it exactly? Is it in the front of the house or the back of the house?
In the back of the house out of the kitchen...to the right of the kitchen . . . goes a little stairway up and into that lovely room. It's a big room. It's properly finished.

Question: That was your private room?
Yes. My private room. She gave it to me night and day. See, I had a long trip home [to Fredericksburg] every day from my job. So in the evening I would go over there and spend it with her for a while. And then I gave up my job in'62 and worked for her full time.

Question: From when? From'62 to when?
I was with her for 3...4 years.

Question: So all that time you lived at the Sewall-Belmont House?
No, I lived here [in Fredericksburg], and I commuted every day . . . into Washington. Then, Miss Paul made it easier for me when she let me use that room. I could spend a night or two in town.

And one night I went in and she said, "Now Butler, this is important. We have a Congressman, Mr. Smith, Howard Smith, and he's head of the Rules Committee, and he is going to have presented to him today 'Equal rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex.' And it's our own idea and its our own conception. And he says that if his constituency will agree to it, he will present it as a law. Now," she said, "you are his constituency. You're the only one we know. And you live right there in Fredericksburg where he lives. Now you go home tonight in your little car and take your little typewriter and put it on your dining room table and write out a letter to him and bring it back in the morning and give it to him. And he will present it when the Rules Committee meets tomorrow." 1

So it all went like clock work, like everything did that she planned like that. And we wrote the letter and I signed it and both of us took it the next morning and gave it to him, and we watched as he turned and handed it to his secretary. He said, "Now, would you read this? Would you agree to this?" And the secretary said, "Oh, yes sir! Equal rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex. That would be wonderful." He said, "Then I'll do it." And he did it, and it passed [the Rules Committee]. And it's been going around ever since, every year in the United States, and it has very nearly passed several times, but not quite yet. But some day it will.

Question: So you lived there for 4 years in the house. Were you a volunteer there? Were you staff?
Sort of a volunteer. I don't remember getting paid, or ever taking a penny for anything. I paid my meals.

Question: Were you the only person living there besides . . .
Oh, no. We had 4 or 5 friends of Alice Paul's.

Question: Were they all working for the National Woman's Party?
I think they were. That's why they were there. I don't think she would have wanted anyone else. It was so intense.

Question: So, there were bedrooms in the house? I want to talk a little bit about what the house looked like.
Oh, it had at least four big bedrooms with baths.

Question: What kind of events happened in the house for the Woman's Party. Did you have any important meetings . . .?
All the time. All the time. She constantly had two secretaries working all the time and the stuff would pile up on the dining room table. The big parlor was on the left, then across the hall was the front sort of library, and behind that was the work room, and then a little office for her off to the left. And on the stairway that went up to those big bedrooms was the marvelous alabaster statue of Joan of Arc that was given to Mrs. Belmont for this purpose...to be put in this house...that is there now I understand.

Question: What was the work room like?
Two or three typewriters going, girls milling around, meals coming and going. There was one maid that stayed all the time, a cook that came and went and prepared all meals, and quietly Alice kept track of it all to make sure we paid for what we were eating, but we didn't have to pay too much. Money was not a bother for some reason.

Question: What were some of the most dramatic things that happened in the house while you were there-- with the National Woman's Party?
It was all exciting. Because she had a stream of things..."Oh, the President is coming tonight girls." Everybody came.

Interviewer's comment: So it sounds to me that one of Miss Paul's strategies was to get influential Congresspersons and other leaders into the Sewall-Belmont House and give them tea and just talk to them, and to use her allies, like you, to single out leaders. And so, she worked with the leadership and tried to persuade the leaders, as much as organize the mass of people.

Question: Did you have social events at the house?
She was always calling the little maid to bring the long linen and the best tea cups and we would sit there in the parlor to be a social event [unintelligible] depending on who was arriving. It wasn't the main thing. The main thing was to get whatever law she was interested in, or get what points she wanted to make done.

Question: Were there parties?
Never as we know them. No. Everything was for a purpose. Not just a get together. You would come together naturally when it was necessary, but I don't remember parties as parties.

Question: She was always strategizing?
Oh yes.

Question: [Can you tell me about] any little memory you have about what it was like to live in that house, or the things that went on in that house?
They seemed so important and so tremendous, and we were so unaccustomed to being important. It was all so breathless. It was an amazing experience.

[Interviewer asks about the grounds of the Sewall-Belmont House]
The only thing we were conscious of was the Senate Office Building. There it was. Right in front of us. If we were hungry, we could go over to [there] and eat. And because we were National Woman's Party work people they were always gracious to us. It was a very nice little badge to have...to be connected with anything with Alice Paul.

End Transcript.

Questions for Reading 3

1) What did Butler Franklin do at the Sewall-Belmont House? Where did she stay?

2) What rooms and features of the Sewall-Belmont House did Franklin mention in the interview? List them. Is this a building you would want to live in? Why or why not?

3) What do we learn about Alice Paul from Franklin's testimony? From this reading, what evidence is there that the Sewall-Belmont House was part of Alice Paul's strategy for the National Woman's Party? How did she use it to build a relationship with federal officials?

4) Do you think Franklin is a reliable source of information? Why or why not? What are the benefits of an oral history as a source of information about the past? What are the drawbacks?

1Howard W. Smith was a Congressman from Virginia's 8th district from 1931-1967. He became chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Rules in 1955. Smith supported the National Woman's Party and was responsible for including sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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