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HERstory: celebrating women in Washington, DC

The history of Washington, DC is filled with the names of male patriots, and their stories are easy to find. But women have always been busy as well, making their own history in tandem with men. There might not be a towering obelisk to mark their contribution, but look a little closer and you can find monuments to female educators, artists, activists, warriors and more.

Here are the memorials and museums in Washington, DC that celebrate some of the city’s – and the world’s – most significant women.

A checkerboard patterned walkway leads to a red row house with a cream-colored dormer window
The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House honors an advocate for girls, education, and civil rights © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS

A sedate row house on Logan Circle comes to life with the stories of its formidable one-time resident, Mary McLeod Bethune. Born in 1875 as the 15th child of former slaves, Bethune believed in the power of education. After obtaining her own formal education, and with an initial investment of $1.50, she founded a private school for African-American girls. She went on to fundraise and advocate for girls, education, and civil rights; advise four presidents; and establish the National Council of Negro Women, an umbrella organization of black women activist groups that was headquartered in the Logan Circle house. Today the rooms are still furnished as they were when Bethune and other council members locked minds with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, activist Mary Church Terrell, and other prominent leaders. The council, by the way, is still going strong, with an outreach to more than four million women – though its offices have since moved to Pennsylvania Avenue.

A sculpture that resembles melted vespa scooters is the centerpiece of a colorful gallery in a museum
The galleries in the National Museum of Women in the Arts are a testament to creativity © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

National Museum of Women in the Arts

The world’s only major museum devoted to women’s artistic achievements occupies a classic revival Masonic Temple downtown – itself a sight to behold, mostly notably for the chandeliered marble ballroom. Delve further inside and you’ll discover a wealth of art by famous and non-famous female artists over the centuries and from around the world. For starters, look for works by Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Then look for the masterpieces of lesser-known Lavinia Fontana (Portrait of a Noblewoman) and Rosa Bonheur (Highland Raid). The museum also offers a robust slate of special exhibitions.

A sign on a brick storefront advertises the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum in Washington, DC
Before Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, she helped identify lost Civil War soldiers from this building © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum

Before Clara Barton became a battlefield nurse and founded the American Red Cross, she devoted herself to finding soldiers lost in the Civil War. She set up her offices in her boarding house in today’s Penn Quarter neighborhood – all of which was lost and forgotten until a few years back, when her belongings were discovered in the attic by chance. Today the rooms where she lived and worked have been restored as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, providing fascinating insight into the ‘Angel of the Battlefield’.

Sunlight streams through stained glass windows into a dark foyer with artwork celebrating women
The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument is a beautiful tribute to women's rights © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

The black-and-white photograph in one of the rooms says it all: a beautiful woman astride a white horse, leading a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the fight for woman’s rights. The date was March 3, 1913, the woman was labor lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain, and the photo is just one of the many artifacts in this stately brick house just blocks from the US Capitol that in 2016 became a national monument celebrating women’s rights. Here, too, you’ll find Susan B. Anthony’s desk, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s chair, and a slew of other fascinating artifacts. Socialite-activist Alva Belmont purchased the house in 1929, and it served as the headquarters of the National Women’s Party for more than 60 years.

Red Brick arches mark an old prison which has been turned into a museum
The Lucy Burns Museum is located in a former cell block of the Occoquan Workhouse prison © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Lucy Burns Museum

The 20th-century suffragettes picketed and marched demanding their right to vote – and in 1917 some were thrown in jail at the Occoquan Workhouse, a minimum-security prison located about 20 miles southwest of Washington. On November 14, 1917, many of the imprisoned suffragettes were tortured by prison guards in what has been dubbed the ‘Night of Terror’. Among them was Lucy Burns, a National Women’s Party leader, after whom this new museum in one the former cell blocks is named; the museum honors those who gave their all for the vote. The Workhouse ceased operation as a prison in 2001, and has since been converted into a thriving arts center.

A curved wall with arches and pillars marks a memorial in Washington, DC
The gravestones of Arlington National Cemetery can be seen from the top of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Women in Military Service for America Memorial

The neoclassical ceremonial wall standing at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery isn’t just a wall. It’s a memorial honoring servicewomen from all wars and occupations, complete with a modern education center, theater, and computerized register of military women. Its exhibits cover the roles of military women from the Revolutionary War (where some women were spies and others fought dressed as men) to the present day. A major draw are the views you get from the roof: behind you are the Arlington Cemetery’s gravestones; in front, Memorial Bridge and the Washington Monument. Inspiring quotes are etched on an arc of glass tablets.

A row of white marble columns holds blue flags that spell the letters D A R.
The Daughters of the American Revolution can trace their ancestry to fighters in that war © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Daughters of the American Revolution Museum

The organization may be a tad fusty, but you can’t deny the Daughters of the American Revolution is one of the world’s largest women’s groups, founded in 1890 in Washington, DC. All members trace their lineage back to the Revolutionary War and are devoted to historic preservation and patriotism to this day. That’s why this museum, housed in the DAR’s enormous neoclassical building across from the White House, is so fascinating: its 31 meticulously decorated period bedrooms, living rooms, and parlors tell the story of the American home between the 1600s and the early 1900s. Learn how a Jacquard loom is considered to be an early type of computer programming; how antiquing was invented in the early 1900s; and how the excavation of Pompeii influenced interior design.

So next time you’re in the nation’s capital, remember – for every Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and King there’s a Barton, a Bethune, an Anthony and a Kahlo. Take some time to find the places that showcase their stories and honor their contributions.

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