On the street where Edna grew up in Philadelphia, her best friend Bess became an outsider compared to most of the other young women interested in marriage and starting a family at the turn of the 20th century. Bess insisted on remaining single because of the limited rights for married women. This caused considerable distress for Bess because she loved men and romance and fashionable dresses. But Bess drew the line in terms of what she’d have to sacrifice in terms of her freedom. And so in her mid teens Bess announced to family and friends that although she invited love and romance into her life, she drew the line at marriage.
MR. WEISS WANTED HIS DAUGHTER BESS TO CHOOSE MARRIAGE, NOT FREEDOM
In the larger world, Bess wasn’t alone. Many young women like Bess longed for choices and opportunities. Increasing numbers of them, like Bess, were in a position to receive an education paid for by their fathers. Mr. Weiss wanted his daughter to be the best possible wife for a man. This included becoming a clever conversationalist, someone skilled in household management, music and art –all of the skills and opportunities that could be acquired with a proper education. And so at home, Mr. Weiss caved into pressure from his wife and daughter for Bess to attend high school, an opportunity denied to most young women of that generation.
BESS RAIDED THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SHELVES FOR BOOKS BY WOMEN WRITERS
When Bess attended high school with her best friend Edna, Bess raided the public library shelves and borrowed books from teachers. She read radical women writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Fuller. Bess also heard stories about Lucretia Mott who turned the heads of old Philadelphia fogies with her radical abolitionist organizing. Many men quaked in their boots when hearing about the ways in which Lucretia Mott and her husband James Mott practiced equality in their marriage relationship. The word got around about how James played an essential role at the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
YOUNG WOMEN LIKE BESS WANTED TO LIVE A FULL LIFE & THIS GOT BESS IN TROUBLE
Young women like Bess traveled to New York City to witness for themselves the outrageous bells of Greenwich Village who strutted and pranced and showed off their liberated views about women’s equality and freedom. To her father’s dismay and regret, Bess turned out to be exactly what her father despised: an independent thinker, someone committed to remaining single and spending all her free time looking for cracks in the family’s armored existence. All of this came to a head when Mrs. Weiss found the book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft under Bess’ mattress in her bedroom.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN WILMER KEARNS ENTERED THE PICTURE . . .
Young Edna Buckman followed in the footsteps of her best friend Bess and announced her intention not to marry. But this resolve was eroded when she met Wilmer Kearns at an art exhibit in Philadelphia. We’ll find out about how this disagreement about marriage impacted the friendship of Bess and Edna on “Suffrage Storytelling.” The ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft and other women writers weren’t taught in school during my youth. Today I find it fascinating to discover the impact they had on my grandmother Edna and other young women like Bess, as well as the previous generation of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many others.
COMING SOON: THE BOOK THAT GOT BESS IN DEEP TROUBLE WITH HER PARENTS. You’ll be able to find out the book yourself on the upcoming audio podcast.
Follow the entire “Spirit of 1776” suffrage storytelling series.
Suffrage Wagon Cafe opened its doors in March 2015, Women’s History Month. Check out our full program.
Follow SuffrageCentennials.com for news and views about upcoming suffrage centennials. “Choose it and Use it” is a video reminding us of how the past is linked to what we do today and its impact on the future.