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Women's groups petition NY state museum to display LI suffrage leader's wagon

A horse-drawn wagon used by the Rockville Centre

A horse-drawn wagon used by the Rockville Centre resident, Edna Buckman Kearns, to drum up publicity for giving the vote to women at the New York State Museum. Credit: None

As the New York State Museum gears up for a $14 million renovation, a descendant and admirers of Long Island women's suffrage leader Edna Buckman Kearns are lobbying the Albany institution to permanently display her horse-drawn wagon in one of the new galleries.

That wagon was used by the Rockville Centre resident to drum up publicity for giving the vote to women before New York State did so in 1917.

Her granddaughter, Marguerite Kearns -- a writer from New Mexico -- women's rights historians and other supporters have been sending petition postcards and emails to state museum officials for several years advocating that the wagon be included in a planned temporary centennial exhibit in 2017 on women gaining the right to vote in New York, and then be placed on permanent display.

In 1913, Kearns, dressed in Colonial-era clothing, drove the wagon she named "Spirit of 1776" around Long Island giving speeches. The wagon remained in the family until her granddaughter donated it to the New York State Museum 15 years ago.

While it has been brought out of storage periodically for display, Kearns' granddaughter and supporters say that is not good enough. "The wagon is not only an important women's suffrage movement artifact, it also stands as one of the nation's icons in the history of American freedom," she said.

Her grandmother, who died in 1934, was an editor at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle at a time when it was unusual for a woman to have an editorial position at a newspaper. She used her position to push for suffrage. But the wagon was a much more visible tool.

The issue of displaying the Spirit of 1776 took on added significance when the state museum this month unveiled expansion plans. Its master plan calls for 35,000 square feet of new exhibits, a changeable wall system and new interactive technology, in the first major overhaul of the galleries since the museum moved to its current space adjacent to the Empire State Plaza in 1976.

Museum director Mark Schaming said it's too early to tell whether or how the wagon would be incorporated because design work will begin in the fall. The galleries will open in phases over the next four years.

Schaming said "the suffrage movement will be certainly part of it in a section called 'innovation, politics and prose,' where we'll be talking about religious freedom, abolition, suffrage and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. New York is particularly important in the women's vote."

He called the wagon "a really important object. We've had it on exhibition here in Albany in the state museum and at the Capitol. It's a great piece." As for Kearns, "I'm sure her story will be told," he said.

Schaming said the wagon would be considered for the 2017 "votes for women" temporary exhibit.

The Spirit of 1776 has historical and personal significance for Kearns.

"It was in my grandfather's garage when I was a kid," she said. "We would sit in the wagon and my mother would have us photographed and I would hear stories about it."

Her research revealed that her grandmother, in the summer of 1913, used the wagon in a grassroots campaign that began in Manhattan and included indoor and outdoor meetings and an appearance at the Nassau County Fair in Mineola.

In 1917, Kearns became active in the National Woman's Party, representing Long Island, and helped persuade former President Theodore Roosevelt to lobby for the vote for women, her granddaughter said. She also picketed the White House.

The efforts of the women paid off when New York State gave them the vote 98 years ago. And that, Kearns said, "tipped the balance nationally in terms of suffrage," leading to ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

That is why it is important to display the wagon permanently, said Antonia Petrash of Glen Cove, author of "Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement."

"The Spirit of 1776 is of tremendous importance to the history of the woman suffrage movement because it is one of the few tangible symbols we have left of that historical struggle for political equality for all," she said.

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