Title: We the Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage
Editors: Sarah Bunin Benor and Tom Fields-Meyer
Publisher: Luminare Press
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 135
Reviewed by Cheryl Bruno for the Association for Mormon Letters
In the past century, society has undergone fundamental changes concerning a woman’s role. No doubt much of the change has come about by means of resilient women. My own mother, who is now 80, was one of the only working women in our middle-class neighborhood in western Massachusetts in the early 1970s. She was the principal of a private school, and returned to the university to complete her Master’s degree after the age of 50. I can heartily recommend this book, “We the Resilient,” as an introduction to some remarkable females.
The book came about in a fascinating manner. When 98-year-old Estelle Liebow Schultz was marking her ballot for Hillary Clinton, she realized that her wish to see the election of the first woman president was historically significant. Estelle was born in 1918, two years before women had the right to vote. When her granddaughter posted her portrait with her signed ballot on Facebook, many were moved to tears. The editors of what would become “We the Resilient” were inspired to launch the website “I Waited 96 Years!” calling for female Clinton supporters who were born before the Nineteenth Amendment to share their stories. 186 women over 96 years of age were eventually profiled on the site
The backgrounds of some of these women are extraordinary. Anne Wainscott, 99, worked in the fashion industry and drew illustrations for designers like Christian Dior and Elsa Sciaparelli. Margaret Johnston, 99, served as a Navy lieutenant during World War II and was one of the two original female vice-presidents of the Pacific Stock Exchange. Glady Burrill, 97, is the oldest woman to complete a competitive marathon, according to the “Guinness Book of World Records.” The list goes on—Vernice Warfield, 101, was a Methodist minister who pastored at the AME church that Harriet Tubman once attended. She worked as a civil rights leader and pioneered integrated PTAs and interracial adoptions in the 1970s. Other women worked as secretaries, educators, editors, politicians, cooks, hair stylists, writers, and in many other careers. Even the humblest of these women’s stories are inspirational. For example, Inez Alcorn writes:
“My parents…were sharecroppers in Oklahoma, and when we left the farm, it was in a covered wagon. For two years we just traveled from one small sawmill to another. Those of us in the South didn’t notice the Depression as much as the rest of the country did. We were poor before and poor after. We ate squirrels and rabbits and fish, and my mother built her own furniture. She was often ill, and I started making biscuits at age seven, standing on a box. But my parents always tried to keep my sister and me in school.”
The excitement of voting for the nation’s first female presidential candidate is evident throughout the book. Juliet Relis Bernstein, 103, “remembers accompanying her mother in a horse-drawn carriage to the polls in the first election in which women had the right to vote.” Helen Cannan Graves, 102, recalls her mother telling her, “someday you will vote for a woman to be president.” Vernice Warfield said that even though she was almost 102 years of age, she didn’t want to vote with an absentee ballot. “I wanted to make my way to my polling place, where I’ve been going for over sixty years, to cast my vote in person on this historic day,” she firmly stated. “I’ve got my ‘power-pantsuit’ on in honor of Hilary Clinton. Women know what to do and how to do it!”
After the 2016 presidential election, the organizers of iwaited96years.com were “shocked, disoriented, and disillusioned.” Again, they reached out to the women who had participated in the website. Surely, they thought, the women who had lived through many of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history would have advice for this difficult moment.
The bulk of “We the Resilient” contains stories about how the 96 to 105-year-olds faced setbacks, both personal and national. Readers will read about the Great Depression, World War II, the struggle for civil rights and other challenges. Gladys Ellen Atkins, 96, writes:
“There have been times when this nation has committed unjustifiable acts, but it has endured—particularly because this nation is comprised of diverse, multi-ethnic groups that are almost all immigrants. They built a nation based on a strong, yet flexible document that is respected and not rejected by new leaders coming into power. The seesaw of power between two parties and the fight for balance between them also seems to have moderated how extreme our nation gets before change occurs…This country has not been its best yet. Equality for all ethnicities, genders, faiths, and lifestyles is still an ongoing struggle, and until these goals are realized, this country must continue to strive to get to the best that it can be.”
The book was a delight to peruse. Colorful photographs of each author, both recent and from bygone eras, peer at the reader from each page. The personal histories of these wonderful women serve as a yardstick to measure social change. Their advice is sage and often poignant. The vignettes also have an application for Latter-day Saints. Though modern Mormonism is more conservative, in Joseph Smith’s day and throughout the nineteenth century, it was revolutionary. One of the most iconic Mormon women was Eliza R. Snow: a robust, accomplished, and respected individual. Latter-day Saint females were independent, and often ran their own households. Utah was the first state to pass suffrage, tangled though the reasons for this momentous event may be. Mormon readers will likely find a resonance with the enlightened, lively, wise narratives of these women.