Q: When did you start being interested in your suffrage activist grandmother, Edna Kearns?
A: My real education came at age ten when my grandfather Wilmer Kearns told me stories about his late wife, Edna Buckman Kearns, who died before I was born. I asked questions. He answered. I was hooked. I introduce Wilmer in my memoir and family history from SUNY Press. Granddaddy plays an integral role in telling the family stories because he was there with Edna, in the front lines of the women’s voting rights organizing in New York City and on Long Island, from 1910 to 1920. Later on, he devoted himself to preserving her Spirit of 1776 suffrage campaign wagon, a symbol of patriotic protest in the movement that’s now in the permanent collection of the New York State Museum in Albany, NY.
Because of the 2020 national suffrage centennial celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, young people across the nation are better informed than they’ve ever been about this important part of our history.
Q: There weren’t any photos of your grandmother Edna Kearns in your home when you were growing up. Why?
A: It took me a long time to figure out why there weren’t photos of my grandmother Edna Kearns displayed in my childhood home. Later on, it made sense. Family members loved Edna. When she died in 1934, the Great Depression was well under way. The bank foreclosed on the Kearns family home near Norristown, PA, and the family business went bankrupt. Photographs and other family memorabilia only reinforced the grief of Edna’s death. So when my mother Wilma first spoke to me about Edna, her voice was subdued and the references to her were few. That’s why I relied on my grandfather Wilmer to find out about Edna when I was young. During the 1980s, my mother and I collaborated on a decade-long exhaustive study of our family history.
In 2020, I placed a flat gravestone marker on my grandmother Edna Buckman Kearns’s grave and that of her parents, Charles and May Buckman, in the Quaker burial ground at Plymouth Meeting, PA. Family members contributed to its cost. Edna and her parents play an important part in the family stories included in An Unfinished Revolution, the book published by SUNY Press.
Q: What is the significance of the Spirit of 1776 suffrage campaign wagon that Edna Buckman Kearns used as a speakers’ platform and for organizing in 1913?
A: While many horse-drawn wagons were used during the early women’s voting rights movement, only two survive as symbols of this long and uphill social justice struggle. The one featured in An Unfinished Revolution, the Spirit of 1776, was used by Edna Kearns and her suffrage activist friends during 1913 in New York City and on Long Island. As the family history reveals, the wagon became a family legend associated with American Revolution lore. Tall tales and legends are common among families across the nation, and this example doesn’t stand alone.
Did General George Washington inspect his troops using this wagon before the Battle of Long Island in 1776? Not likely, the author concludes. Her research reveals that the wagon may not have been built until well after Washington’s death. There is no doubt, however, that the Spirit of 1776 wagon played an important part in women’s voting rights campaigning.
Other family legends, including the alleged Edgar Allen Poe chairs in Wilmer Kearns’s living room when his granddaughter Marguerite was young, also fall into the category of family legends that are part of the overall narrative of the underlying meaning of activism and how this impacts family life over the generations.
The Spirit of 1776 suffrage wagon is also representative of the “patriotic protest” definition of patriotism, compared to the definition of patriotism defined as “my country right or wrong.” This theme was established in the Declaration of Sentiments approved at the women’s convention at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. And it is also referred to in other social justice campaigning by others during the twentieth century.
The Spirit of 1776 suffrage campaign wagon has been exhibited at the New York State Museum in 2010, 2012, 2017-2018, and 2020. It is scheduled to be on exhibition at the state museum in Albany, NY into 2021.