By Pam Hersh
After 90 years of living, Susie Wilson – renowned in New Jersey as a political activist, an advocate for teen sex education, and a competitive runner – would like to share some wise words that have fueled her long life.
“Vote – vote as though your life depends upon it,” said Susie, who has lived in Princeton for more than 50 of her 90 years. “When we cast a vote – at that very moment – we all are equal. A vote has the same weight whether you are rich, poor, Black, Brown, White, a first generation American citizen, or someone with a Mayflower heritage. Make your voice heard.”
I got treated to her advice when I called Susie to talk about her 90th birthday celebration, a 3.1 walk run on the campus of ETS, an early August event for a handful of invited guests that actually took place on her 90th plus-six-months birthday. But Susie, who ran her first — and only — marathon (New York Marathon) at age 67, had no particular interest in talking about herself, but preferred conversation about the topic that has served as her energy drink – the state of our democracy.
In spite of the bleak landscape through which we are all slogging, Susie and I acknowledged that there was much on the political scene to celebrate. Her 90th birthday year has featured people making their voices heard in the area of social, political, and economic justice matters. Princeton’s advocacy events have included: a rally this past weekend to save the post office; several Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the spring and summer; Zoom police/community public forums on systemic racism and community policing.
After a public outcry about the racist behavior of prominent historic figures John Witherspoon and Woodrow Wilson, the John Witherspoon Middle School dropped John Witherspoon from its name, and Princeton University cleansed the name Woodrow Wilson from its school of public affairs.
“None of this would have happened without people speaking out, causing a little ‘good trouble’ to quote Congressman John Lewis (the recently deceased and legendary civil rights activist), a secular saint,” Susie said. She has taken her kids and grandkids on a civil rights highlights trip that included the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis sustained a nearly fatal beating during a 1965 civil rights march protesting racial discrimination in voting.
Quite appropriately and but only serendipitously, Susie’s birthday walk/run coincided with the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States. On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Women’s Suffrage 19th amendment, giving the amendment the two-thirds majority of state ratification necessary to make it the law of the land.
“Most of my political activism has focused on getting women to run for public office and then supporting them when they decided to do so,” said Susie, who never ran for political office. The National Organization for Women asked Susie in 1997 to run for Congress against Congressman Chris Smith. “But people said it would have been folly. I should have ignored everyone and listened to my own counsel. It still nags at me that I turned down the opportunity to run and to speak out about women’s issues. I ran the NYC Marathon instead. Of course I lost, but it was a wonderful experience and a great accomplishment. That’s how I feel about running for office. It is okay to lose, but you learn so much about yourself and the democratic process, and you get a chance to communicate your message to a broad audience,” she said.
Susie caught the voting rights bug from her mother, Katherine K. Neuberger, for whom Election Day was the most exciting and most important day of the year. “It even dwarfed her husband’s/my father’s birthday,” Susie said.
From the time Katherine Neuberger cast her first vote when she was 21 in 1928, she never missed voting in any election in which it was legal for her to vote. In an essay Susie wrote for The Lawrence Ledger on Nov. 2, 1984, Susie noted that “process, not partisan politics, motivated my mother.”
Susie’s family was diverse as far as political affiliations, “but my mother, a Republican, never lost respect for an opposing point of view – only for failing to live up to your most sacred responsibility as a citizen of the United States. Election Day was a day of a moral responsibility, regardless of party.”
Susie, in her role as a voting rights advocate, is the personification of a comment that John Lewis articulated in his final essay, printed in The New York Times after he died. “Democracy is an act, not a state.” And I have no doubt that Susie, for another decade at least, will continue to act to get Americans to act on behalf of democracy by doing one simple thing – voting.