Kathryn Stearns: Frances Parkinson Keyes

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(Host) In observation of Women’s History Month, VPR is featuring a series of
stories about remarkable Vermont journalists. Commentator Kathryn
Stearns is herself a journalist, whose newspaper career began in Washington, and she finds a kindred
spirit in Frances Parkinson Keyes, who left her home in the Upper Valley
to write about the social scene in the nation’s capital at a pivotal
time for women’s rights.

Follow the curves of the Connecticut River along Route 5 just north of
Newbury and you’ll come to a yellow farmhouse in the Federal style and a
sign announcing "Oxbow Books." Proprietor Peter Keyes collects
secondhand titles, photographs, old postcards and ephemera, as he puts
it. Filling the shelves just inside the door are books by his
once-famous grandmother, Frances Keyes, including faded copies of her
first novel, The Old Gray Homestead, whose opening paragraphs describe,
unmistakably, this river valley she called home.

Born Frances
Parkinson Wheeler in 1885, Keyes spent her childhood summers in Newbury.
She met Henry Keyes there, married him at 18 and moved across the river
to the stately Pine Grove Farm in North Haverhill, N.H.

Henry was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1918, after serving one term as
New Hampshire governor, Frances followed him to Washington – not only as
a dutiful wife and mother, but as a writer who figured that women
isolated in the countryside would enjoy reading about life in the

Good Housekeeping agreed. The magazine published her
columns under the heading "Letters From a Senator’s Wife," and they were
later compiled into a book.

Letters From a Senator’s Wife is
out of print now and largely forgotten. That’s too bad, because Keyes
offers a rare woman’s perspective of official Washington in the era of
Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

She arrives as World War I
draws to an exhausted close. Prohibition is due to take effect.
Suffragettes are on the march, eager to ratify the 19th Amendment
guaranteeing women the right to vote.

The senator’s wife fills
much of her time making and receiving social calls according to the
rigid protocol of the day. The wives of Supreme Court justices on
Mondays; congressional wives on Tuesdays; Cabinet wives on Wednesdays:
650 calls during her first season, she writes, "like going around in
squirrel cage."

But her letters aren’t only about teas at the
Congressional Club. Though she never attended college, Keyes was an
intellect with a social conscience, interested in the plight of the
poor, racial equality and, above all, women’s rights.

reports from the Senate gallery about bills to protect maternal health
and reform child labor. She marches in solidarity with the National
Woman’s Party as it campaigns for the doomed Equal Rights Amendment. She
sits in on the third annual convention of the League of Women Voters.

starry evening, she pushes her way through the crowd outside the
Capitol rotunda to see the newly installed statue of suffragettes Susan
B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. "Didn’t those
three women have to fight through, and rise above, something as hard as
marble in their lifetime?" she asks, in awe.

Keyes died in 1970,
better known as a prolific novelist than as a correspondent for a
women’s magazine. Even so, her observations for Good Housekeeping remain
an excellent guide to the manners, mores and political machinations of
Washington in the early 1920s. They also reveal a woman – not only a
senator’s wife – fully engaged in the crusade for equal rights.

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