The sturdy wooden wagon on display in the New York State capital through this summer is the centerpiece of an exhibit called From Seneca Falls to the Supreme Court: New York’s Women Leading the Way. Unheard of in 1776 and unsecured until 1920, the women’s vote has become critical to candidates’ success. The suffrage movement of the early 20th century evokes the stamina and discernment needed to address the overwhelming values crisis that’s challenging the American spirit now.
During the second decade of the 20th century, the indefatigable Edna Kearns led the way in New York City and on Long Island, where she promoted voting rights for women wherever an audience could be found. The wagon, called “Spirit of 1776,” was her speaker’s platform. Seeing the horse-drawn vehicle this month in a place of honor among images of the women it served was a reminder of the determination it took to effectuate a right we now take for granted. Voting is a hard won civil right, not a “privilege” like driving a car or traveling on an airplane, as some politicians would have us believe.
Suffragists addressed the injustice of being denied the equality touted in the Declaration of Independence.
Today’s crisis is the polite but tacit denial of Americans’ desire for fairness, equality and ecological sensibility by the profit-based values underlying the dominant global corporate system. It’s a series of issues that snag us in the weeds and distract us from the overriding problem: How to regain control of our government and save the planet from destruction by inexorable exploitation and neglect.
Audience response was unpredictable when the “Spirit of 1776” hit the road. Crowds threw flowers at the women or tossed insults such as, “Why aren’t you at home taking care of your husband and children?” In Edna’s case, her daughter Serena was often with her in the wagon, and her husband Wilmer marched in the men’s division of suffrage parades. Edna and Wilmer exemplified partnership at a time when it was cutting edge. When Edna went off to conferences and suffrage organizing events, Wilmer answered the phone and suffrage correspondence.
Former Woodstock Times editor Marguerite Culp-Kearns, Edna’s granddaughter, donated the wagon to the State of New York ten years ago. In the exhibit, the “Spirit of 1776” and photographs of Edna and the activists with whom she marched are surrounded by panels of accomplished New York State women who forged a path from the Declaration of Sentiments presented at Seneca Falls in 1848 to the diverse Supreme Court of today. The Suffrage Wagon News Channel, or http://www.suffragewagon.org has been created by Culp-Kearns to build leadership through news and stories of the suffrage movement.
On July 2, 1913 The New York Times reported that the wagon, which came from the family of “an old-time Long Islander” known as Uncle Dan Hewlett, had been presented the day before to the State Woman Suffrage Association for campaign purposes. After the ceremony, the Times stated: “Mrs. Wilmer Kearns and Miss Irene Davidson, dressed as minute men, and little Miss Serena Kearns, in the back seat as a little Liberty, carrying the stars and stripes, drove to Jamaica, where a meeting was held. The wagon was covered with painted inscriptions, placards and waving banners. The words “spirit of ‘76” was fastened to the back, and beneath it another placard read: “If taxation without representation was tyranny in 1776, why not in 1913?”