A deeply felt thank you to Western Friend for including in the early spring issue a selection from my book from SUNY Press (State University of New York) that highlights my Quaker family, their leadings and calling to work for equality and peace.
It is An Unfinished Revolution: Edna Buckman Kearns and the Struggle for Women’s Rights (SUNY Press, State University of New York, 2021).
I started asking questions about my suffragist Quaker grandmother, Edna Buckman Kearns, when I was ten years old. I was bewildered as to why no photos of Edna were displayed in the home where I was raised. The answer was right in front of my nose, but I couldn’t understand until years later that family members hadn’t yet processed the grief of Edna’s death in 1934. They loved her, and reminders of family history, including photos, only complicated the situation. Many items were saved, and they helped me in making a family story come alive in a written form.
I didn’t realize that all of my effort in writing a memoir would address my family’s dilemma, as well as draw attention to dedicated Friends from all over the world, many whose names we’ll never know. They have demonstrated the power of love and healing in their own lives. They have also applied similar tender feelings and concern to other serious social issues of long standing.
My book has been in the works for almost all of my life. Now this literary accomplishment fills in an enormous gap about voting rights and peace activism on the local, state, national, and international levels. It also inspires other generations—four generations, to be specific, in my own family. And all of this is within our reach due to so many communications tools available in recent years.
My memoir and family history published by SUNY Press makes vivid and specific an untold number of individuals and families more than 100 years ago who experimented and modeled freedom and equality in their personal lives.
The gap between the outpouring of US suffrage histories and biographies during 2020, as well as the national suffrage centennial celebrations, leaves behind a wide divide. It’s between what we know and the actual impact that this decentralized social movement played in the lives of tens of thousands of women and men across the nation and around the world.
Awareness of gender and other inequities can be identified throughout the history of the United States. If it hadn’t been for writer and newspaper editor Frederick Douglass who attended the women’s convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, we might be in a very different situation today. I learned about Frederick Douglass from my grandfather Wilmer Kearns. Douglass insisted that US women add winning the right for women to vote to the priorities and goals of the Seneca Falls convention.
The 2020 national election of Kamala Harris, the first woman to serve in the White House, was set in motion by Frederick Douglass, and other activists who were persistent and unrelenting. Even though my grandmother Edna Kearns died in 1934, my grandfather and my mother were responsible for making sure I understood “why I am the way I am.” As stories of the suffrage activists pile up before and after the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 2020, the impact on individuals and families and communities has become even more worthy of note.
In 1904 when Edna May Buckman and Wilmer Kearns married in a Quaker ceremony, women were still considered the legal property of their husbands. It was a dehumanizing position for women of all backgrounds. More women, however, were enrolled in college and universities then. And more women than ever were questioning the institution of marriage itself.
Because I write in an accessible creative nonfiction style, I hope to reach others to pass on examples of how many Friends and Meetings have been witnesses and participants in progressive American history, as it is being made. As we all know so well, leadings and callings in Quaker tradition involves more than simply assembling a lengthy list of accomplishments. Our lives are complicated and also include secrets, scandals, AND activism as a family priority. I included some of this in my memoir and family history, hopefully in an informative and understanding style and spirit.
The early women’s rights movement was decentralized (there were hundreds of organizations). It was also multicultural and diverse. Participants had to agree on one thing—that women should vote. It took years of hard work for any group of suffrage activists to pass the torch to the next generation. My book suggests that this important social revolution remains “unfinished."
The year 2020 was the centennial of women voting in the United States, and the book, An Unfinished Revolution traces this journey in one family. It’s funny, informative, emotionally satisfying, and highly adaptable to conventional as well as other types of teaching and learning. The book has 100+ vintage photos, most from my personal family collection.
There’s an image of my grandmother Edna wearing a Quaker bonnet. She wasn’t shy about telling us, in her own words, what it was like marching in the Quaker division (the Equal Rights Association) of the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC. I draw on oral family history, as well as my grandmother’s writings. She wrote columns about equality and freedom for metropolitan New York City newspapers after 1908. She was active in Yearly Meeting and worked from dawn to midnight for years. She couldn’t have predicted that eventually I would show up on the scene to tell her story.
The awareness and spiritual insights don’t stop there. I participated in the 2019 women’s march in Santa Fe, New Mexico carrying a photo of family members in a 1914 suffrage movement march from New York City to Albany. This Library of Congress photo is also on the cover of my book.
My grandmother Edna Buckman Kearns and her parents are in the Quaker burial ground in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Edna’s suffrage campaign wagon, the Spirit of 1776 is in the permanent collection of the New York State Museum in Albany, NY. The suffrage wagon was exhibited in 2010, 2012, 2017-18, and now is on display in the “Windows on New York” exhibition at the state museum that lasts until the end of 2021.
The City of Long Beach (NY) is installing a historic marker on its boardwalk in 2021 commemorating the suffrage organizing work of Edna Kearns. Another historic marker featuring the Kearns suffrage campaign wagon was unveiled on Huntington, NY’s main street in 2018. The historic markers are part of a state and national votes for women trail funded by the Pomeroy Foundation.
My Quaker grandparents made history. They weren’t famous and never expected to be. I tell the story of their witness and participation in the social issues of their time. They influenced me. And I rarely hesitate to ask others, “Have you documented the stories of faith and practice and concern to pass on to the next generation in your own family?
Few folks have, and that’s another reason I’ve written An Unfinished Revolution. It’s a gift to all of us, as Quakers, friends and family to inform and inspire others and ourselves. And BTW, the book is available for purchase from SUNY Press and other commercial outlets.
from Marguerite Kearns, Santa Fe, NM (4/4/2021)