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Born before suffrage, these women are still waiting to elect a female president

By Sarah Bunin Benor

March 9, 2020

 

When Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the suspension of her campaign last week, she expressed disappointment for “all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.” I thought about my late grandmother and realized I should get more involved in the struggle to elect a female president.

 

What does my grandmother have to do with this?

 

In the fall of 2016, my mom snapped a photo of Grandma Estelle, then 98, with her mail-in ballot. I posted it on Facebook, noting that Estelle, born before women could vote, was eager to elect the first female president, Hillary Clinton.

That post drew an overwhelming response, including a comment from a writer friend, Tom Fields-Meyer, who suggested there must be others like my grandmother. Tom and I created a website, “I Waited 96 Years,” which profiled 186 women, all born before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. It generated attention around the world, from the Washington Post to Samantha Bee.

 

“We are about to make history and have a woman president for the United States,” wrote Consuela Lopez, 96. “I never thought in a million years I would see that happen.”

 

“I am grateful that at 98 years of age I am witnessing this historic event in our country,” said Rachel Kotike.

 

Kathleen Duffy, 97 and a former Democratic committeewoman, was thrilled: “Having a woman as president of the United States means that a young girl will know that she can grow up to be anything she dreams. Election Day cannot get here soon enough!”

When it finally did come, the results left us, like much of the country, wondering how to move forward.

 

So we posed that question to the women on our website. After all, they had endured the Great Depression, wars, assassinations, and more—and persisted.

 

Their answers were so encouraging and uplifting that we compiled them in a book: We The Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage. It featured 78 women’s stories of overcoming adversity and coping with sexism—as well as their advice about facing the future in this difficult time.

 

Beatrice Lumpkin, a labor activist born in 1918, reflected the general spirit of the women: “I believe that young people will lead our country towards a better, more humane society. My message to them is: don’t waste time grieving. Instead, organize and continue to fight for the rights of the 99 percent. We older people will help you turn our country around.”

 

These women’s resilience kept me strong and hopeful over the past three and a half years, not only through tumultuous political events, but also when my grandmother died in 2018.

 

This year, I thought of the resilient women as I watched the democratic debates. I know my grandmother would have been pleased with the unprecedented diversity in gender and race. When Senator Amy Klobuchar and Warren suspended their campaigns, I wondered how some of our centenarians were coping with the news, so I asked their relatives.

 

As I suspected, many of the women had passed away. Some relatives wish their mothers or grandmothers were around to discuss the latest developments. Many said the women would have been disappointed or angry. One daughter—age 72—wonders whether she will live to see a female president.

 

However, most are carrying on their mothers’ optimism. Several hold out hope that the Democratic nominee will select a female running mate. And they offer messages of resilience.

 

Linda Roberson wrote that her aunt, Helen Roberson Hunter, would have been thrilled with Warren’s campaign but not fazed by its suspension. “I can hear her saying ‘Buck up, kid!’ and being pragmatic about enthusiastic support for the eventual democratic nominee.”

 

Annie and Katie Kirking, granddaughters of Evelyn Kirking, summed it up well: “We are saddened that Grandma didn’t get to see a woman become president and saddened that it is now certain that this cycle will not yield a female president. But, if Grandma Evelyn’s life and legacy taught us anything, it was resilience.”

 

Four of the women featured in the book were well enough to respond to my query, and they expressed a range of views. Inez Alcorn, 100, wasn’t surprised or disappointed, as she didn’t think the female candidates would have won the election. Gender doesn’t factor into her voting decisions, and it doesn’t bother her that she likely won’t see a female president.

 

For Shirley O’Kay, gender is much more important. She feels that women “are winning the battle,” having made many advances over her 100 years. But she urges women to keep fighting—and voting—for equality, especially in the highest office. She hopes Warren or Klobuchar will become vice president and, eventually, president.

Juliet Bernstein remembers going with her mother by horse-drawn carriage to vote in this historic election of 1920. Now, at almost 107 (!), she is very disappointed in our country. “As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, how much longer will women have to wait for a female president? I had hoped to see it in my lifetime, but obviously, I will not.”

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Elizabeth Pula, 101, still holds out hope that she will. She has remained politically active—even participating in the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches in her wheelchair. Pula’s advice today echoes Sen. Warren’s message: “Be resilient and persist to make your dreams come true.”

 

For the sake of these remaining centenarians—and to honor the memory of those who have passed—let’s push for a female running mate and support female candidates at all levels of government. It may take more than four years, but a woman will eventually be president.

 

 

Sarah Bunin Benor is a Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and co-author of We The Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage.