Women reflect on the 19th Amendment

Three women at the Windemere nursing home remember a time when women didn’t have the right to vote, and weigh in on the current election.

Sarah Isenberg points to a copy of Hillary Clinton's memoir that is being read to her by a friend. — Stacey Rupolo

Three residents at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Oak Bluffs, all women and all in their 90s, were born just before and after 1920, the year women got the right to vote. On Monday, Nov. 7, they spoke with The MV Times about the current election, and how far the nation has come with a woman running for president.

Voting is a duty

Sarah Isenberg was born in 1917, three years before passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. She’s now 99 years old, and still voting.

“We have a big day coming up,” Ms. Isenberg said as she sat on her couch, next to a copy of Hillary Clinton’s 2003 memoir, “Living History,” along with the New York Times, which displayed a photograph of Secretary Clinton above the fold of the paper. She said that a woman rabbi visits and reads Secretary Clinton’s book to her, and that her favorite part is when Secretary Clinton lived in New Haven, Conn., because that is where Ms. Isenberg is from.

She believes voting is a duty. “You have not only the right, you have the responsibility,” Ms. Isenberg said.

A daughter of Russian immigrants, Ms. Isenberg was a young adult during the Great Depression; she was 22 years old when the stock market crashed. Although she aspired to be a doctor, as a woman, she was not allowed. Instead, she became a public health nurse and eventually opened the first hospice in the United States in Branford, Conn.

Ms. Isenberg said that she envied women who were doctors, because although Elizabeth Blackwell had become the first woman doctor in 1849, it was still not considered an acceptable profession for women in the 1920s.

“As a woman, I experienced the fact that I wanted to be a physician and I couldn’t,” Ms. Isenberg said. “I thought I had the brain and the ability to go further, and I wanted it, and I couldn’t.”

When asked how she would feel if she was able to see the first woman become U.S. president, Ms. Isenberg replied, “It’s about time.”

‘My granddaughters, the doctor and the lawyer’

Elaine Goldin, 95, was born in 1921, a year after the 19th Amendment was passed and four years after New York State granted women full suffrage. As a woman growing up in New York, she too was not able to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, Ms. Goldin became a dental hygienist, and later an anesthesiologist, but she said that it made her “sad” that she couldn’t go to medical school because she was a woman.

“I really used to get so aggravated and angry,” Ms. Goldin said. “So many things that I can’t do because I’m a lady.”

She has two granddaughters, one a doctor and one a lawyer, she said proudly.

Ms. Goldin reflected not only on the struggles that she faced growing up, but also on the excitement that Election Day brings. She urged young people to vote, and said she was ready to see a woman in the Oval Office.

Living history

Lorraine O’Callagan, 95, was also born in 1921, and is from Derby, Conn., a state that did not award full suffrage to women until passage of the 19th Amendment. She said she remembered how excited her mother and grandmother were to finally have the right to vote, because they followed politics closely. The importance of the vote was something they instilled in her at a young age. She even remembers bringing her grandmother, then in her 80s, to the polls to vote.

“She was so proud of that — that she could go and vote,” Ms. O’Callagan said. “Imagine. Women couldn’t vote. It wouldn’t go far today.”

Ms. O’Callagan was a social worker and taught history, but she also lived history. She remembers being in Times Square on V-J Day in 1945, and waiting for her husband to return from World War II.

Ms. O’Callagan also remembers women marching and protesting while she was growing up. She said that women faced many restrictions, and although getting the right to vote was one of their major victories, they still faced a great deal of discrimination.

“There was always something to demonstrate about,” she said.