Wagon Women for suffrage had Woodstock ties

Elisabeth Freeman on her way with her horse-drawn wagon to Washington, DC. (Library of Congress)

Jane Van De Bogart raced into Woodstock Town Board meetings with her nose pointing in the direction of her council seat. She hitched stacks of books, maps, and research papers under each arm. This town board meeting would have the usual budget line items to address, another zoning consultant’s report to review, and one more town employee to advise about the state’s Freedom of Information legislation.

Jane stopped, laid down her burden, and pulled a notepad from the stack to check off yet another task completed and then three more to add. Jane modeled multi-tasking before the rest of us even became acquainted with the term. Woodstock teemed with vocal and visible individuals like Jane, many determined to change the world up against those who were convinced the community should remain pretty much as it had always been — a quiet Hudson Valley retreat stirring only from Memorial to Labor Day.

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By the mid-1970s, the townspeople had reluctantly come to terms with the shift from a part-time to a year-round town. Did Woodstock need a conventional or a custom solution to address disposal of its municipal sewage? The town board considered additions to the community master plan and aired progress reports on the town’s sidewalk project and sign ordinance. Council members like Jane immersed themselves in the complexity of detail.

Back then I survived hours of public deliberations by taking copious notes and then I headed to the newspaper office to file my articles before the Tuesday deadline. Reporting for Woodstock Times, I believed, had to be one of the best jobs in town.

“What drives you to serve on the town board?” I asked Jane.

“Among other things — my great aunt Elisabeth and the stories I heard about her pounding pavements for women’s rights,” she replied. “I owe my right to represent the people of Woodstock to my great Aunt Elisabeth.”

“My grandmother Edna was a Votes for Women activist too,” I told her.

We weren’t aware then that my grandmother Edna Kearns (1882-1934) and Jane’s great aunt, Elisabeth Freeman (1876-1942), not only knew each other but they had worked together in the movement. Both were grassroots activists. Both were wagon women, organizers who drove horse-drawn wagons in order to mobilize support for women’s voting rights in the nineteen and teens. With the increased number of automobiles on the road, women and their wagons with freedom messages were noticed by New York’s men who as voters were in the position of approving votes for women. But would they?

New York City, January 1914. Gathering to march to Albany. First row: Second from right: Serena Kearns. Third from right: Rosalie Jones. Fourth from right: Ida Craft. Second row from right: Wilmer Kearns standing with cane. Edna Kearns, second from right. Third from right: Elisabeth Freeman. (Library of Congress)

Novel organizing techniques such as wagons took the women places in rural areas where they could otherwise not travel. Activists flooded the state, from top to bottom during the 1915 voting rights referendum campaign that failed and then again in 1917 when women celebrated the statewide voting victory. Elisabeth Freeman and Edna Kearns were in the grassroots forefront of rattling the cages.

The suffrage campaign wagons used by Edna Kearns, Elisabeth Freeman, and Rosalie Jones of Long Island provided for visibility and mobility. Edna drove the “Spirit of 1776,” and Elisabeth and Rosalie a yellow wagon that traveled within New York and then on to Ohio and Washington, DC. Wagons on the campaign trail were popular attention-getters. A woman driving a wagon with freedom messages might not sound like a cutting-edge tactic today. But during a period when wagons hit the streets for the women’s cause, they were considered novel and successful. They attracted publicity, and best of all, crowds.

Wagons required skill in driving. The vehicles provided instant speakers’ platforms. Citizens responded to the suffragists’ impromptu demonstrations and rallies with curiosity, support, and heightened emotion. Rosalie Jones, Edna Kearns, and Elisabeth Freeman wrote articles, gave interviews, and served as press agents for the suffrage movement on the local, state and national levels. They understood and took advantage of the emerging power of newspapers in the New York City metropolitan area at the turn of the 20th century. They made reputations with their wagons and made sure reporters and photographers documented every detail of their work.

With jewels like these in Jane’s and my background, a creative expression waited for a collaboration with the Floating Foundation of Photography in High Falls, NY (Steven Schoen and Jone Miller) for a 1986 exhibit in Ulster County featuring Edna and Elisabeth. It justified the “Spirit of 1776” campaign wagon emerging from my grandfather’s garage in the Philadelphia area and placed on exhibit for the first time in New York State along with large-format archival prints and collages. From this point on, the wagon took on a life of its own.

Over the decades, the “Spirit of 1776” wagon has become recognized as a prime artifact of women’s struggle for the franchise, as well as symbolic of patriotic protest themes embedded in this major U.S. nonviolent social revolution. The “Spirit of 1776” is the only known existing example of a museum exhibit-quality wagon symbolizing grassroots organizing for women’s voting rights prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. This was my grandmother’s legacy. Jane’s great aunt Elisabeth also organized for voting rights with working women and immigrants in inner cities. She didn’t confine her activism to votes. She also went on a lecture tour to reveal the grim reality of lynching and didn’t miss an opportunity to speak out about one social injustice or another.

Tracking down the wagon stories about Elisabeth and Edna uncovered several of their collaborations, including how Jane’s great aunt, my grandparents, and my mother’s older sister showed up in New York City in early January 1914 to join a march to Albany to speak to the governor. They planned to ask him to appoint poll watchers for the 1915 suffrage referendum to prevent election fraud. Another purpose of the march some referred to as a “hike” was to educate citizens along the way. Not every one completed the 175 miles from New York to Albany on foot. The Kearns family didn’t, but Elisabeth Freeman persisted.

When the exhausted group reached Kingston, they stayed overnight at the Mansion House on the Rondout, then a popular hotel, before resuming the journey to Albany. Shortly thereafter, the Kingston Freeman published an editorial calling the women “bedraggled and charmless” and criticized them for having “diseased minds” and “trying to push their ways into spheres of action for which their own performance prove them to be pre-eminently unfitted.”

The suffrage marchers may not have won over the men voters of Ulster County, but the purpose of the march was accomplished when New York Governor Martin Henry Glynn approved the poll watchers. Votes for women lost in Ulster County in 1915 and again in 1917 when New York women finally won the right to vote statewide. There were 5,800 affirmative votes for women’s voting rights in Ulster County in 1917, but 9,300 men voters were opposed. In New York City, 104,000 “yes” votes carried the state.

Jane Van De Bogart and I continued sharing suffrage tales with others after the 1986 exhibit closed in Kingston. “Elisabeth Freeman was my mother’s aunt, a daring and dramatic single woman who dazzled my mother when she was a young child with her flamboyant green velvet dress, titian red hair, and wild stories. I never met my great aunt. She died when I was only six months old, but I know my mother and her sisters liked and admired her,” Jane told an audience at SUNY New Paltz in March of 1991, one of several presentations we gave about Elizabeth and Edna with the participation of our respective mothers to add color and human interest to the programs.

We dug even deeper to uncover what both women believed about militant versus more conventional movement tactics and strategies. Because Elisabeth Freeman had been trained by the Pankhursts in England and she served time in prison for voting rights activism there, she referred to herself as a “militant suffragist.” In an article explaining her position, Freeman wrote: “Six years of battle on English soil and two terms in the hideous Holloway jail have convinced me that militancy is the only way to suffrage for women in England.”

“But what about militancy in the United States? Is it justified?” Edna Kearns asked in an undated copy of a speech I found buried in my grandmother’s suffrage archive where she wrote:

“I feel that Miss Freeman has taught me a great lesson in regard to passing judgment on others. For I had judged the militant women when I heard that they attacked the property of private merchants. I said, ‘They can break all the government windows they want to, but when they attack the property of private merchants, I am afraid I cannot sympathize with them.’ And then, being a believer in justice, and with the knowledge that had I lived in the time previous to the Revolutionary War, I too, regardless of the fact of whether it was lady-like or not, I too would have done anything in my power to help free my country from the tyranny of England. And because of this sense of justice, I am in sympathy with our brave English sisters…”

When Edna Kearns and her associates dressed in colonial costumes in July 1913 and hung banners on the “Spirit of 1776” wagon protesting “taxation without representation,” they reinforced a tradition of going back to the nation’s founding principles to define this form of protest as an integral part of American history. Scholar Hal Simon used the term “patriotic protest” in his survey of gay rights and other 20th century civil rights movements representing a long tradition.

Frederick Douglass relied on arguments of patriotic protest in his writings and speeches to justify the abolition of slavery and the extension of equal rights and freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. grounded many of his arguments for equality and social justice in patriotic protest. Examine the speeches and journals of many American women’s suffrage leaders and organizers during the 19th and 20th centuries and you’ll find patriotic protest references embedded somewhere, if not prominently displayed, in art, speeches, and writings.

During the January 2017 women’s march I noted with interest the number of signs with the message “Protest is Patriotic.” My impression was that of an idea coming into its own once more. This doesn’t change the tension between the left and right wing definitions of patriotism and how this might or might not impact the struggle for equality still underway. We live in complicated times. How the spirit of 1776 is defined, manifested, and kept alive remains — as always — up to us.

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