Marguerite Kearns started asking questions about her suffragist grandmother Edna Buckman Kearns when she was ten years old. She couldn’t understand why no photos of Edna were displayed in the home where she was raised. She realized later that family members hadn’t processed the grief of Edna’s death in 1934. They loved her, and reminders of family history, including photos, made the matter worse.
Such an emotional family dilemma has taken decades to resolve. And the outcome will be revealed in a memoir to be released by SUNY Press (State University of New York) on June 1, 2021. An Unfinished Revolution: Edna Buckman Kearns and the Struggle for Women’s Rights by Marguerite Kearns has been in the works for almost all of her life. It fills in an enormous gap about how voting rights activism on the local, state, and national levels impacted suffrage and peace activists on the ground, as well as in other generations — four generations – in the author’s family.
The memoir and family history from SUNY Press makes vivid and specific those individuals and families more than 100 years ago who experimented with 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.
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 1848 women’s convention in Seneca Falls, New York, we might be in a very different situation today,” said Kearns. She learned about Douglass from her grandfather Wilmer Kearns. Douglass insisted that US women add the right to vote to the priorities and goals of the Seneca Falls convention.
“The 2020 election of the first woman to serve in the White House was set in motion by Frederick Douglass, and other activists who were persistent and unrelenting,” Marguerite Kearns added.
“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,’” the author continued. As stories of the suffrage activists piled up before and after the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 2020, the impact on individuals and families 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,” says Marguerite Kearns. “More women, however, were enrolled in college and universities. And more women than ever were questioning the institution of marriage itself.”
Kearns writes in an accessible creative nonfiction style that reveals the context of the times, as well as how her family members were witnesses and participants in history being made.
“And instead of a lengthy list of accomplishments, this is the story of a real family, their secrets, scandals, AND activism as a family priority,” she says.
The author begins asking questions of family members at age ten, and then expands her understanding of this dramatic part of US history as the decades pass during the 20th century.
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 for any group of activists to pass the torch to the next generation. The book suggests that this important social revolution remains unfinished.
The year 2020 was the centennial of women voting in the United States, and An Unfinished Revolution traces this journey in one family. It’s funny, informative, and highly adaptable to conventional as well as other types of teaching and learning. The book has 100+ vintage photos, most from the author’s personal collection.
Marguerite Kearns is the descendant narrator who brings the story to life, as well as up to the present day. She participates in the 2019 women’s march in Santa Fe, New Mexico carrying a photo of her family members in a 1914 suffrage movement march from New York City to Albany.
Edna Buckman Kearns and her parents are buried 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 exhibit in the “Windows on New York” exhibition at the 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 grandparents were making history, and I tell the story of their witness and participation,” says Kearns.
Book Purchases made through this Amazon link support the New York Almanack’s mission to report new publications relevant to New York State. Books noticed on the New York Almanack have been provided by their publishers.