An Unfinished Revolution: Edna Buckman Kearns and the Struggle for Women's Rights

By Marguerite Kearns

State University of New York Press (2021, 331 pp.)

"Step lightly when visiting the past," the author's granddaddy warns her when she is a child, as she persists in asking questions about her grandparents' life. "Thee could lose thy way as easily as getting lost walking home from school."

The authors' grandparents, Edna Buckman and Wilmer Kearns, were Quakers and fierce activists for women's suffrage during the early years of the 20th century in Philadelphia and New York. They hailed from farmers and humble merchants and used the archaic plain speech, with the "thee" and "thy" forms. Together they marched in parades, attended lectures and protests and signed petitions. They were the "new woman" and "new man" of a generation defying gender stereotypes, and their marriage formed a remarkable egalitarian meeting of the heart

The author, Marguerite Kearns, a former journalist in Woodstock, New York, now living in Santa Fe, believes she was destined since childhood to tell their story. Although her grandmother Edna died in 1934, a good 10 years before the author was born, she and her long-lived granddaddy shared a close bond. Indeed, he challenged her as a youngster: "If thee don't write our family story, who will?"

The author wondered over many years how she could possibly tell their story. "During my childhood I sensed Edna following me, staring over my shoulder, pointing me in various directions. I couldn't have gained a perspective of my life if my grandparents hadn't been a part of it."

The author moves through events in the early life of both Edna and Wilmer from the late 19th century onward, their courtship and subsequent involvement in campaigning for what they called "an unfinished and continuing American Revolution." Their marriage, however, was not an easy sell for Edna's family, as she was the 10th generation of Quaker immigrants in Pennsylvania - pious, persecuted people who did not believe in an authoritarian hierarchy of the church, but insisted that each of God's beings possessed an "Inner Light" to reveal the truth. They were pacifist, did not smoke or drink and were fiercely abolitionist and egalitarian.

Moreover, Edna, as a teenager, was determined not to marry.

"Our Edna is called to work for equality," asserted her mother to the visiting Wilmer, seated uncomfortably on the family's cherished Edgar Allan Poe chairs in the Buckman home in Echo Dale, Pennsylvania. "To be in the world and serve."

Edna's suitor was born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country, from a large family of Lutherans (first strike against him), ancestors who had variously fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and Civil War (second strike against him). After business college in Philadelphia, where he first bumped into Edna when she dropped her art sketches on the pavement, Wilmer gained his first job in the accounting department of T.J. Dunn, a cigar manufacturer in New York.

The unlikely pair attended a lecture by Emma Goldman, the fiery social critic, advocate for marriage equality, birth control, working people's rights and anarchism -- and Wilmer proposed marriage. He would become a Quaker. They were married in June 1904.

When Wilmer first questioned the need for women to get the vote -- most men of his age believed women were "irrational, inferior and emotionally unbalanced," and should stick to their conventional roles as mothers and wives supporting their husbands -- Edna replied firmly: "It boils down to taxation without representation. This is tyranny. It must be resisted."

They even adopted a horse-drawn wagon, reputed to have once belonged to George Washington, and renamed it the Spirit of 1776. It was pulled along during suffrage processions and Edna would use it for a platform on which to give freedom speeches.

Author Kearns quotes from Edna's letters and speeches to give a sense of immediacy to their shared cause, and there are fascinating archival photographs. "Edna and votes for women was the most glorious time in my life," Wilmer recalled mistily to his granddaughter, much later in life.

When they marched together, such as in the massive, diverse, multinational suffrage procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, they were jostled violently by the spectators and spewed with verbal abuse. The march was organized purposefully by the Quaker leader Alice Paul, Inez Milholland (astride her white stallion) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association the day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, and onlookers spilled out of taverns to heckle and jeer, tossing burning cigarettes at the peaceful marchers, pulling off their bonnets and capes and spitting at them. The men participants were called names like dish rags and she-men. The police stood by laughing and did nothing to protect the marchers.

The huge noisy melee proved a turning point for the movement -- some said it upstaged the incoming president -- injecting new energy and impetus into the struggle for enfranchisement.

Working together for universal voting rights became the life's mission of the couple, even after ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Both their daughters, Serena and Wilma, continued the family tradition of protest over the decades. Through her grandparents' example, the author found her own voice as a young journalist in the 1970s. She wanted to become what grandmother Edna had been: a "witness for change."

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