At the side entrance of a Beaux Arts building at 1776 D St. NW is a small sign indicating the presence of the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum.
The tasteful plaque fits the quiet stereotype of the DAR. Inside, however, is an exhibit that may shake up such conventional views. "Talking Radicalism in a Greenhouse: Women Writers and Women's Rights" is a collection of writings, portraits, photographs and personal accounts of 18th- and 19th-century women passionately involved in struggles to abolish slavery and later to shape new roles for women.
One visitor wrote in the comment book, "The DAR has come a long way from banning Marian Anderson [from singing in the DAR's Constitution Hall] to exhibiting the writings of some of America's greatest feminists."
Actually, according to exhibit co-curator Diane Dunkley, this new exhibit really returns the DAR to its roots. The organization was founded because the Sons of the American Revolution refused to let women join. Feminist Susan B. Anthony was one of the DAR's first members.
The exhibit explores the web of relations and range of opinions among a group of women who played important roles in the struggles about the controversial issues of their day: abolitionism and the rights of women. Ms. Dunkley says those issues were discussed and written about by a "core group of women" who knew each other and carried on a continuous public dialogue through their writings and open forums.
It's hard to wander through the exhibit without thinking, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." The views and even some of the disagreements about slavery and women's rights have obvious contemporary parallels. Author Louisa May Alcott called women "the white slaves of America." Women in the 19th century battling to unlock the chains of slaves soon began to focus on their own lack of freedom. Similarly, the civil rights movement, which began in the 1950s, was a key impetus for the growth of the women's movement in the 1970s. Women got tired of their behind-the scenes labor and began to examine their subordinate role to the male leadership.
Then, as now, the appropriate role of women was the subject of vehement disagreements. Catherine Beecher believed that the more intelligent a woman, the more likely she would be able to appreciate "the wisdom of that ordinance that appointed her subordinate station." Her more famous sister, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, was as adamant a supporter of women's rights as she was an opponent of slavery. …