Category Archives: Edna Buckman Kearns

Thanksgiving letter from Edna Buckman Kearns to her childhood friend Bessie

Thanksgiving 1904

Dear Bessie,  Remember the promise we made to each other before my June wedding about the two of us getting together at the Russian tea place over the Christmas holidays? Wilmer and I might come down to Philadelphia. And Mama and Papa are thinking about traveling up to New York, but no decision yet. If we make it home, I’ll be so happy to see you.

Being a married woman is so different than I ever imagined. A long train trip with Wilmer all the way to St. Louis for our honeymoon was exhausting enough, and I could barely concentrate on the exhibits and crowds at the world’s fair. We came back earlier than expected. Being in New York City makes me realize what a country girl I’ve been when it comes to becoming a woman and growing up overnight. I’ll get used to it, I suppose.

The two of us I must talk over tea. My mother’s generation is so much in the attic when it comes to things of this world. So New York is the best thing that’s happened to me. People speak languages I didn’t know existed, even though I studied geography and was convinced I knew it all.

The men Wilmer works with at the accounting firm had dinner at a restaurant downtown and took their wives along. One of them, who grew up in New Jersey, talked all through the meal about awful it is that women are allowed to vote in Wyoming and how nobody knows anymore whether a woman’s visit to a neighbor is to solicit votes or get support to run for political office.

I laughed, but only to myself. Have been taking the bus now and then for meetings about women voting. Getting used to New York and being married is plenty for now because I tire easily. My fingers are crossed for the two of us having tea over the holidays.

Thy loving friend, Edna

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A fairy tale story of suffrage

My Aunt Serena Kearns was known as Nassau County’s “youngest suffragist.” If there was a poster child for woman’s suffrage, it was little Serena. Her image was preserved when sitting in her mother Edna’s suffrage campaign wagon, the “Spirit of 1776″ with the large bow in her hair. Yes, this is the same wagon on exhibit on the second floor of the New York State capitol through the summer of 2012.

Little Serena accompanied her mother, Edna Kearns, in New York City parades and on whirlwind campaigns for Votes for Women on Long Island.  This article from the Brooklyn Times on February 13, 1913 documents a suffrage story that Serena wrote:

“Once upon a time there was a fairy called Suffrage. Now it happened that the laws of the land did not suit her. She believed in equal rights. But in that land the men did not believe in the women voting.

“Now fairy Suffrage was a smart fairy: She went to the President. But she did not dress as a fairy. Oh, no! She dressed as a poor working girl asking for the vote to help her in her work. The President wouldn’t help.

“The next day while she was out walking she met an enemy of hers. His name was Ignorance. Ignorance began to say disagreeable things to her. ‘Ignorance,’ she said. ‘I will go to Justice, the queen of the fairies, for help.’ This she did. And Justice said: ‘I can help you because I dwell in almost everybody’s heart, while Ignorance lives in the hearts of so few people. I can overcome Ignorance with my wonderful power.’ Then Justice won the battle in the year 1915 and fairy Suffrage was saved.”

Poor Serena must have been disappointed as suffrage wasn’t approved in 1915 by New York State voters. However, it passed in 1917, which means the upcoming 100th anniversary is in 2017.

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Grandmother Edna Kearns wouldn’t let lawyer off the hook . . .

Edna not only put herself out in public, but she documented herself every step of the way. A conversation with an attorney became a newspaper column in four-part harmony. Poor guy. He admitted that voting might be okay for Edna, but not for his wife. He wouldn’t let her vote. And so on. See the entire exchange. Edna Kearns made the point that politics must be the concern of women.  See her piece about how politics resides within each baby.

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“Happy New Year, Suffragette”: Grandmother Edna’s New Year’s Eve story

A little story written by my grandmother in 1913 about speaking on a street corner on New Year’s Eve in New York City followed a rant about being abused by hecklers in the Washington DC suffrage parade. Edna tacked on the New Year’s Eve story in a column she wrote comparing the experiences of suffragists in New York parades versus that of Washington, DC.  Grandmother Edna concluded: “New York men are the best in the United States.” When Edna had finished her presentation about Votes for Women, the crowd yelled, “Happy New Year, Suffragette.” From the South Side Observer, March 14, 1913.


What Edna Kearns will do for votes in this cold and snowy weather. . .

Grandmother Edna had a hard time saying “no” when it came to campaigning for Votes for Women. And she was a particularly soft touch when suffrage activist Rosalie Jones asked for volunteers to march to Albany. It’s quite a boat ride from New York City to Albany, not to mention the journey by train. But Rosalie really meant it when she asked for others to march alongside with her, out in the street, facing the winter weather.

A demonstration like this made good copy, and the suffragists were clear about the importance of staying in the forefront of the news. They marched out of New York City the first week of January in 1914, determined to speak to the governor about appointing poll watchers for the upcoming 1915 state suffrage referendum. Only a handful actually made it from start to finish, but this shouldn’t be surprising. These days we stay home when snowflakes fall. Anybody demonstrating on the streets so soon after New Year’s Day would inevitably attract attention.

Both my grandparents started out on the march, along with daughter Serena Kearns, who was nine years old. They finished the first leg of the journey, and then Edna rushed home to write her story and deliver it to the Brooklyn Eagle where she published a column and edited special suffrage features. The NY Times had a straight-forward version of the event, while Edna’s accounts focused on the Votes for Women issue and human interest. While the Hudson Valley press had been primarily positive, a few Hudson Valley papers such as the Kingston Daily Freeman criticized the women for not being of sound mind.

Edna used the experience as a reference in her speeches and newspaper writing.

Splits in suffrage movement didn’t deter working relationships

Mrs. Raymond Brown took over after Harriett May Mills as president of New York’s state suffrage organization. A rare recording of Mrs. Brown speaking is a valuable look at the period, as well as a reference in one of Grandmother Edna Kearns’ newspaper columns that she wasn’t all that pleased with Mrs. Brown being selected as state president. Despite her personal opinion, Kearns and Brown worked closely together on suffrage organizing of Long Island. Photo: Library of Congress.

“Just show up,” say Votes for Women activists out in force at Mineola Fair

“Just show up.” That’s the advice for us today in all aspects of our lives. It was the motto of the suffragists who used community events such as the county fair to show up and use the occasion to advocate for human rights.

Check out the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 22, 1915. What’s Edna Buckman Kearns up to now? She’s making her presence known at the Mineola Fair, and here’s what the Brooklyn paper had to say about it.

Sending a message upstairs to those in charge. . .

Here’s my grandmother, Edna Kearns, dressed as an aviator. The photo could be interpreted as quaint and perhaps a bit old-fashioned. Underlying the outfit is the message that women had decided they could wait no longer for the vote as they’d been asked to do before the Civil War. They would no longer cooperate. They would no longer submit to second-class citizenship. They would no longer be obedient to the status quo.

There were tens of thousands of down-to-earth and up-in-the-air activists like grandmother Edna. Perhaps your grandmother or great-grandmother was on the suffrage bandwagon too. This wasn’t a fad. It was a shared understanding that without the consent of half of the population, things would have to change.

When reading through Edna’s scrapbooks and clippings, I’m finding many examples of dramatic tactics. Such as Long Island suffragists who milked cows to attract attention to the movement. They flew airplanes and distributed Votes for Women literature from the air. It was critical to keep the issue of Votes for Women alive so the movement didn’t die on the vine. This wasn’t a remote possibility. The suffrage movement started with a bang in 1848. By 1900, people described the movement as in the “doldrums.”

This was another way of saying that collective begging and “pretty please” no longer worked. What began with polite persuasion developed into accelerating forms of protest. When parades no longer did the trick, some segments of the movement moved on to non cooperation (including boycotts of political candidates and parties), and then, bolder and more dramatic stands, such as picketing the White House.

See article from Edna’s collection from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. This particular piece describes women turning a Long Island airport over to a demonstration that sounds almost like a movement pajama party. The event didn’t exist in isolation. In the context of demonstrations like it across the nation, the suffs sent a clear message to those in charge. They weren’t about to give up.

Photos: Edna as aviator from the collection of Edna Buckman Kearns. Vintage photo from the public domain.

Bad girls and troublemakers!

“History Detectives” was a great way to begin the week, along with Louise Bernikow’s article for the Women’s Media Center about this deep dark hole of our history.  You can watch the “History Detectives” show online after the fact.

Part of the thrill of doing this work is when my grandmother Edna Kearns speaks to me, when I can hear her voice above the noise and chatter of present day. Above all, she’s saying, “Don’t give up. Lucretia Mott took a lot of flack in her day from people who said she wanted too much too soon. And take Susan B. Anthony as an example. Ridiculed often, she never wavered from her goal.” Hefty advice for the days when we feel overwhelmed, isolated, discouraged. Hang in there, says Grandmother.

Notes pioneer women’s historian Anne Firor Scott: “It is worth trying to understand the past because in the process of doing so one learns so much about the possibilities and mysteries of human existence at the same time one is learning how partial and incomplete is even the most careful reconstruction of lives, events, and social movements. Sometimes I am willing to say, with Leonard Woolf, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters.” (From Making the Invisible Woman Visible.)

Anne Firor Scott’s interview with North Carolina Public Radio commentator Frank Stasio is worth a listen. Scott speaks about her life, women’s history, teaching and her perspective on the current state of affairs in the world. She reminds us that scholars and history buffs aren’t escapists in the sense that we prefer to live in the past instead of the present. Rather, we reach out to bridge the past with the present and extract the lessons meant for us today.

Blogging for BUST

Though the term “blog” didn’t come into use until 1999, it’s just like me to tell folks that Grandmother Edna blogged suffrage news and reported it much like a citizen journalist would today.  Edna wrote columns, press releases and was suffrage editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She served as press chair for suffrage campaigns and had relationships with every news editor on Long Island.

Grandmother participated in suffrage events and then she raced home to write about the experience. The outcome wasn’t instant like a blog would be, but it was as fast as could be expected back then. A few women like Ishbel Ross and Emma Bugbee broke into writing through the suffrage movement. Check out this case study of Ross and Bugbee and how they got into “the exciting newspaper game.” The story of how Ross tracked down Mrs. Pankhurst led to her later comment about she owed her newspaper career to this front-page interview. Bugbee covered the 1914 march to Albany and the incident in front of the Metropolitan Opera in 1919 with Alice Paul and others where Grandmother Edna was smack in the middle of the fray.

While we’re waiting for the September 20th “History Detectives” program to air, I’m posting more audio comments from author and historian Louise Bernikow. Here, she speaks about the chronic forgetting of suffrage history.

Photo by Peter Norby.

“Let them wimmin get the vote and stop making so much fuss!”

This story is from a New York Tribune article from Grandmother Edna Kearns’ archive documenting her woman’s suffrage activism on Long Island and New York City.

When Edna’s suffrage campaign wagon was presented to the state suffrage organization in 1913, a big crowd was in attendance, and the event received considerable media attention. 

Woman’s suffrage is going national!

Find out more about “History Detectives” and Louise Bernikow’s appearance on the program.
Feedback I’ve been getting suggests that training is necessary in the art of High Tea. The Atlanta Board of Education produced a training film for young women that covers the basics of putting on a tea. Films like this aren’t being made any more. It covers “correct behavior,” proper form and dress, “etiquette and taste, where the tea-pot should be placed and more. Also, check out other training films in the archive of the Suffrage Wagon News Channel.

I like to use the program for the 1915 tea in honor of Susan B. Anthony and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw as an example of how to organize a similar event, even if it’s just you in charge of the organization. The enlargement for the image above may be slow in loading, but it’s worth the wait because the size is 100 percent. On the right page of the program, there’s the who, what, where and when. The suffrage quotes speak for the issue and justify the importance of the occasion, as do the patrons who are an integral part of the fundraising. If you think I’m pushing the 1915 tea, you’re right! Grandmother Edna was on the planning committee.

Don’t forget to put September 20th on your calendar in 2011!

Photo of my grandmother Edna in 1912

Barnstorming for Votes for Women on Long Island, my grandmother Edna Buckman Kearns didn’t leave a stone unturned in her campaigning for Votes for Women. This photo is from a New York State suffrage publication, showing her to the right holding an umbrella.

The Good News and the Other News

Ok, let’s get the not-so-good news over with. We didn’t make the $5,000 goal on Kickstarter. But let’s not forget the $1200 grant from the Puffin Foundation and the pledges and support from many many friends. Thank you!

In the Good News Department, Mayor David Coss of Santa Fe, New Mexico has joined an ever-growing number of people around the country who are supporting the New York State Museum in its efforts to obtain the funding it needs to put my grandmother Edna Buckman Kearns’ suffrage campaign wagon on permanent exhibit in Albany, NY (the state capitol). The museum has plans for a renovation that would feature the wagon, among other things. However, funding has been held up indefinitely because of budget issues.

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