“Estelle L. Schultz, who was born two years before women had the right to vote, marked her absentee ballot for the first female president, Hillary Clinton.”
That’s how it started — with a brief Facebook post in October of a 96-year-old Maryland woman holding her absentee ballot and flashing a big smile.
Before long, there was a website, iwaited96years.com, dedicated to hopeful female Clinton supporters who were born before Aug. 18, 1920 — when the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified. It featured their stories, 186 of them in all.
Then came the jolt of Nov. 8 and the question of what happens next. For the website’s prime collaborators, Sarah Bunin Benor — the granddaughter of Schultz who made the initial Facebook post at the request of her mother, Roberta Benor — and Tom Fields-Meyer, it was time to get past the initial shock and sting of Clinton’s loss and circle back to the women they featured for advice. The results were independently published last month in a book called “We the Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage.”
“I didn’t realize when I posted it how intense it would be, how it would really change my life for six months,” said Bunin Benor, 42, an associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Fifty-five of the women who appeared on the website responded to some or all of the authors’ questions, which included: When in your life have you experienced personal disappointment, tragedy or unexpected loss? How were you able to overcome those setbacks? When in your lifetime was this country at its best?
Their responses, as well as pictures of their current and younger selves, are featured in the book, whose title was inspired by artwork designed by Los Angeles artist Ernesto Yerena for a protest campaign called We the People. Yerena passed out thousands of his posters featuring Granny Helen Red Feather, a Lakota elder, along with the words, “We the resilient have been here before,” at the Los Angeles Women’s March. Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer wrote the book’s foreword.
Though the contributors come from a variety of backgrounds, many spoke of similar issues, such as losing parents, spouses, siblings and children. The importance of education, friends and hard work were common themes, along with stories of subtle and not-so-subtle sexism.
“When I graduated from Florida State College for Women, I applied and was accepted to the Duke University School of Medicine,” wrote Katherine Blood Hoffman, 102, of Tallahassee, Fla. “Duke required that I sign a waiver promising not to marry while in their medical school. I wasn’t even engaged, but I refused to sign because Duke didn’t require the same promise from men. Instead, I chose to enter Columbia University, where I earned a Master of Arts degree in Chemistry.”
Bunin Benor connected with Fields-Meyer, 54, a journalist and author, after he became one of the hundreds to immediately like her original Facebook post. They had known each other for about eight years, both being members at IKAR and Temple Beth Am and living in the same Mid-City neighborhood.
The two talked about collaborating on a project during a break at Yom Kippur services at IKAR and launched the website with the help of Fields-Meyer’s wife, Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, who has experience in the area. Roberta Benor corresponded with those who submitted pictures and text to the website.
Project participants expressing high hopes about a potential Clinton administration included Madeline Rosenberg, 101, of Hartsdale, N.Y., who died in April, (“Women are getting where they belong!”) and Primetta Giacopini, 100, of San Jose (“It’s about time we got a woman in there! The men have had plenty of time and have just screwed things up”).
Kveller, a Jewish parenting website, did a brief story about the site. BuzzFeed was next. From there, things snowballed. There was coverage in dozens of publications around the country as well as from newspapers in Spain, the Netherlands and India. Fields-Meyer credits all the interest to the “inspiring and optimistic moment in this otherwise rancorous election season.”
As Election Day neared, more and more submissions from nonagenarian and centenarian women came in, including 20 or so from women in their early 90s who were too young. The women born after the cutoff date were, however, highlighted on Facebook.
Only a few of the women featured in “We the Resilient” are Jewish. Still, Fields-Meyer said, given Judaism’s reverence for older people and the wisdom they bring, “In a lot of ways, I feel this project had a Jewish soul and message, a message that it’s really important to listen to these people from previous generations.”
Being featured in the book meant a lot to the participants.
“I’m rather proud,” Rose Kaufman, 103, of Santa Monica, told the Journal. “I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been active with the League of Women Voters, among other things. I think we always have to be hopeful. In other words, we can’t give up.”