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A historic election for the oldest voters

Eda Mahan, left, a 96-year-old lifelong Democrat, sits with three generations of politically interested females in her family, her daughter, Patricia Dobbs, 68; her granddaughter, Susan O'Brien, and her great-granddaughter, Lucy O'Brien, 12.
Eda Mahan, left, a 96-year-old lifelong Democrat, sits with three generations of politically interested females in her family, her daughter, Patricia Dobbs, 68; her granddaughter, Susan O'Brien, and her great-granddaughter, Lucy O'Brien, 12. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Eda Mahan has been voting for president for more than 70 years. She cast her first ballot in 1944 — she helped Franklin Roosevelt win his fourth term.

But as familiar as the quadrennial ritual has become, this year's election will be different.

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Mahan, a Towson retiree, was born in June 1920, before women won the right to vote. Now she plans to cast her ballot for the first woman to have a chance of becoming president.

"It's nice that she's a woman," says Mahan, 96. "But it's even better that she's a woman I like. She seems to know what she's doing."

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This year's election promises a special poignance for a small group of Maryland voters: Women who were born before women could vote, and who now will participate in the first presidential election to feature a woman as a major party nominee.

Most say it was a long time coming. But that doesn't mean they all intend to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Ruth Hackman is supporting Clinton's Republican rival.

"I look for honesty in a candidate more than anything," says Hackman, 98, who lives at the Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in Timonium. "And do I think Mrs. Clinton is honest? No.

"I think Donald Trump would be far superior. He has learned to work with people. He's a businessman. He comes across to me as being honest. That's the way I'm going to vote."

Hackman, a retired nurse, says it's nice that a woman is on the ballot, but gender has no bearing on which candidate would make the best president.

"I don't vote along party lines or follow patterns like that," she says. "For me, there has always been one deciding factor, and that is the person's character. I prefer Mr. Trump in that regard."

Clinton isn't the first woman to be nominated for president. The short-lived Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull for the nation's highest office in 1872, nearly half a century before she could vote herself. (Her running mate was the Maryland-born abolitionist, social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass.)

Other minor parties have nominated dozens of women since. This year, the Green Party has nominated Jill Stein, a pediatrician and activist from Massachusetts.

But Clinton is the first woman nominated by one of the two major parties. Polls, electoral maps and prediction markets show the former first lady, senator and secretary of state leading the businessman Trump less than three weeks before Election Day.

The states ratified the 19th Amendment in August 1920, giving women the right to vote. Women born before then — the youngest are now 96 — have lived through a succession of historic advances in women's rights.

They have seen progress both legally — the bans on gender discrimination in the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act, Title IX and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act — and socially: the mass entry of women into the workforce during World War II, the widespread availability of contraception, the growing recognition of harassment and violence against women.

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Viola Priday sees gaining the vote as one step in a larger journey.

"I'm very aware that it didn't happen for a long time," she says. "But we couldn't do a lot of things back then."

The 19th Amendment had an immediate impact.

About 18.5 million people had cast ballots in the 1916 presidential election. With women eligible to vote in 1920, turnout jumped to 26.8 million.

Priday, 96, grew up on a farm in rural Texas, where she spent much of her childhood helping with chores. She says it didn't occur to her to look for a job until she was old enough to move away from home.

The lifelong Democrat cast her first vote for president in 1944, when she was 24 and working for an aviation company in Dallas.

"I didn't have a chance to vote until I grew up a little and had some sense in me," she says, and laughs.

Priday and Hackman both say they follow politics ardently, both by watching the Fox News Channel.

Hackman says she couldn't live with herself if she didn't stay informed. Priday says she watches the news shows the way friends and family follow soap operas.

Priday says the vitriol that has characterized the 2016 campaign can leave her head spinning — "I'll listen to Trump one day, and he makes sense, then I'll listen to Mrs. Clinton the next day, and she makes sense" — but she's not confused about whom she'll vote for.

"They say she has lied, but I take that with a grain of salt," she says. "I like Trump OK, but I think Hillary has had a little more experience."

She says her parents were Democrats, and she has stuck with the party most of her life out of a sense of tradition.

Hackman has been less predictable.

Raised a Democrat, she changed her party affiliation to Republican at some point in the 1940s: "I can't remember why; someone must have made me mad." She has voted for candidates as disparate as Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

She had no hesitation about voting for Democrat William Donald Schaefer for governor in 1986 and 1990.

"I was raised in a time when there were a lot more honest people, and he was one of them," Hackman says. "I didn't care what party he belonged to."

Hackman and Priday both worry about how a woman will fare as commander in chief.

To Hackman, men are simply better suited for the job. Priday fears that other countries "might try to run over us" with a woman in Oval Office.

Mahan has no such qualms.

Her enthusiasm for the Democratic Party dates back to her childhood in Little Italy, the home and political base of Baltimore's D'Alesandro dynasty — Thomas Jr., a congressman and mayor, son Thomas III, also a mayor, and his daughter Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House.

Mahan became a "staunch liberal, an independent woman before her time," according to her granddaughter, Susan Dobbs O'Brien of Millersville.

While working with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Mahan became involved in politics as a representative to the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a government union.

Her daughter, Patricia Dobbs of Towson, didn't warm to politics as much; she didn't vote in a presidential election until 2008, when she found inspiration in the oratory of Barack Obama.

But Mahan's granddaughter, O'Brien, became heavily involved in the late 1990s, when she joined the staff of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Now a consultant, O'Brien says her career gave her "Mum-Mum" the chance to meet Schaefer and Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The passion has made its way to Mahan's great-granddaughter — O'Brien's daughter Lucy, a 12-year-old middle-schooler in Severna Park.

Lucy got her first taste of the family business at age 10, when she knocked on doors for Patrick Armstrong, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the Anne Arundel County Council.

A member of student government who has run for class office, she says she hasn't made up her mind which presidential candidate she favors — she has "problems" with both — but it doesn't matter quite yet, as she can't cast a ballot for another six years.

Still, she'll head to Riderwood Elementary School in Towson on Nov. 8 for her great-grandmother's historic moment. All four generations are planning to visit the polls together.

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Mahan says this year's campaign has been exciting, but at her age, she must make a few concessions.

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She tried to catch the third and final debate this week, for example. But by the time Clinton said Trump hadn't paid federal income taxes and Trump responded by calling Clinton a "nasty woman," the matriarch was no longer paying attention.

"It was late," Mahan says. "I think I fell asleep."

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