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Kathryn Stearns: Frances Parkinson Keyes

(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.

(Stearns)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 asign 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.

When 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 capital.

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.

She 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.

One 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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