Suffrage Wagon News Channel: Celebrating Women’s Freedom to Vote

My heart stopped when Michelle Obama mentioned the suffrage activists who were dragged off to jail in her speech at the Democratic National Convention this September. Did the First Lady actually say that? She did. And we’ll be hearing more about our brave suffrage ancestors from many different types of people in the future. It’s because the suffrage story is coming into its own. It will drown out those who seek to repeal the 19th amendment, limit voting rights, as well as those who make fun of young women who don’t know the meaning of the word “suffrage.”

When people hear the real stories of the Votes for Women movement, they are fascinated and want to know more. They feel differently about voting after realizing what it took to win the franchise. A great deal has changed since the activists of the National Woman’s Party went to jail, and when my grandmother picketed the White House in their support in 1917. Being active politically and voting is as relevant and cutting edge as it has always been. It is becoming even more so now.

The "Spirit of 1776" suffrage campaign wagon in 1913 on its way to Brooklyn and Long Island. Left to Right: Edna Kearns, Serena Kearns, Irene Davison

The "Spirit of 1776" suffrage campaign wagon in 1913 on its way to Brooklyn and Long Island. Left to Right: Edna Kearns, Serena Kearns, Irene Davison

My grandmother Edna’s suffrage campaign wagon, the “Spirit of 1776,” has been on exhibit at the state capitol in Albany, New York since March 2012. I don’t know how much longer it can be seen, but one thing’s for sure. The wagon will be back on the road again with the New York State suffrage centennial in 2017 and the national suffrage centennial for the US set for 2020.
There’s nothing stuffy and old fashioned and irrelevant about the “Spirit of 1776.” The suffragists knew that the American Revolution was unfinished in the summer of 1913 when Grandmother Edna first took the wagon out on the road in New York City and Long Island for campaigning. The American Revolution remains unfinished for us today, and this is just as true for women around the world whose revolutions may be defined differently but the spirit to inspire and make change remains the same.

Edna Kearns knew enough to preserve the wagon, just as she saved her papers so that the story of how the vote was won on the grassroots could be told to future generations. My grandmother’s suffrage wagon is in the collection of the New York State Museum, and it may be the only suffrage campaign wagon still accessible for exhibition purposes. The wagon is symbolic of traveling and taking a message out into the world.

I’ve always been fascinated with Edna’s suffrage campaign wagon ever since I was young. Every summer my mother dressed us up in special outfits to sit in Edna’s wagon and have our photos taken. This was the primary education I received about the suffrage movement, so family stories were particularly important. The only time I heard anything in school about Votes for Women was when my eighth grade social studies teacher summed it up in one sentence: “And then in 1920, women were GIVEN the vote.”

I knew this wasn’t true, but I didn’t have my grandmother around to tell me the details of how hard it was and how long it took. I heard suffrage movement stories from my grandfather, Wilmer Kearns, who lived into his 90s. He said that when Edna attended suffrage conferences and was involved in special events and activities, he took care of their older daughter Serena Kearns and answered the phone and correspondence. Grandfather Wilmer marched in the men’s division of suffrage parades. He accompanied the women activists on a march in January 1914 from New York City to Albany to speak to the governor about appointing poll watchers. The suffrage movement, for many, was a family affair.

My mother was born on November 12, 1920. When women across the nation were getting ready to vote en masse, my grandmother Edna had labor pains. She’d already been voting since 1917 when New York women won the franchise. I never thought to ask my mother whether or not Grandmother Edna voted in 1920. It’s something I will never know. Edna Kearns died in 1934, long before I was born. So over the years, I’ve made a point of discovering Grandmother Edna through her writings, speeches, photos, letters, and news articles.

Grandmother Edna wasn’t famous, though she was well known in suffrage circles as a hard worker and for her dedication. Alice Paul wrote in a letter to Edna that she wished she had a Mrs. Kearns in every congressional district. Grandmother Edna represents the tens of thousands of women across the nation whose names we will never know; the documentation of their activism has been lost to us forever. Edna’s stories came down to me because of her suffrage wagon and because Edna was a squirrel who saved everything.  Like many suffragists, my grandmother was aware of the importance of documentation and the necessity of creating your own media to get out the word.

I share my grandmother Edna with others. If my grandmother was so committed, so were other grandmothers and great grandmothers and family members. We can learn so much from the suffrage movement’s victories and setbacks. My grandmother’s generation and generations before her pulled off a remarkable nonviolent social revolution, and this was no small accomplishment. They were courageous. They were creative. They were politically astute. They suffered and sacrificed. They had a vision and would not deviate from it. They could laugh, enjoy themselves, and still inspire thousands of others. We can learn so much from their experience. Now is the time to recognize their remarkable contributions, live it in our own lives, and pass it on. And don’t forget to vote!

Marguerite Kearns, author of this piece, writes and edits the Suffrage Wagon News Channel, an online platform of news and stories of the suffrage movement as a way of building leadership.

4 Responses to Suffrage Wagon News Channel: Celebrating Women’s Freedom to Vote

  1. Pingback: NEWS FLASH: The story behind Grandmother Edna Kearns’ Suffrage Wagon | Suffrage Wagon News Channel: BLOG

  2. Pingback: NEWS FLASH: The story behind Grandmother Edna’s suffrage wagon | Suffrage Wagon News Channel

  3. Nate Levin says:

    A really beautiful, eloquent post.

  4. Pingback: It’s Almost Time to Vote « Georgia Tech Women's Resource Center

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