By Marguerite Kearns. Excelsior Editions, 2021. 354 pages. $34.95/paperback or eBook.
This title will likely draw readers with an interest in history and women’s studies who anticipate that context for a biography of Edna Buckman Kearns. However, this is not a standard biography or a focused history of suffrage and women’s activism; it is a family story with many layers that invite contemplation of legacies, memories, leadings, and continuing revelation. This story includes the life of Kearns and her commitment to women’s rights and suffrage campaigns of the early twentieth century. Told through a granddaughter’s journey and her grandfather’s memories, it is a winding conversation unfolding with vignettes and occasional tangents along the way. Those elements not apparent from the cover may be what speak to some readers the most and offer discussion opportunities for meeting reading groups.
Kearns writes with an inviting style that draws readers along. Chapters are not overly long, and relevant photographs are included throughout. The author allows us to join her on a quest to understand her family and the context of their lives. In the introduction she writes:
The examination of one family during the early women’s rights movement demonstrates the importance of activism within families, the unreliability of treasured legends, and the role tradition and storytelling plays in collective identity and meaning.
Often it is not the details of a story that one is left with but the issues and reflections relating to deeper questions. Friends will especially appreciate the struggle the author’s grandparents went through as they discerned their relationship and how commitments to Quakerism influenced life choices. What stories do families tell themselves, and what secrets are kept?
The book has four parts. The first presents the more tightly woven story line, primarily through the lens of conversations the author had with her grandfather Wilmer. His story as a male suffrage activist and a convinced Friend is compelling. Later parts continue to draw upon Wilmer’s memories, but also bring in the author’s mother and the author’s life. The last part includes a variety of forms with chapters functioning almost as standalone essays (including one on Anita Pollitzer, Pete Seeger’s aunt, who was active in the suffrage movement with Kearns) and a section presenting writings of Kearns. Those seeking more background through published histories and specific sources are supported with useful endnotes and a lengthy selected bibliography.
Gwen Gosney Erickson is the archivist at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. Her interests as a historian focus on the intersections of Quaker studies, African American history, women’s studies, U.S. social justice movements, and ways that faith and identity inform our historical narratives.