Timely Women: Female Centenarians Who Went the Distance



Rose Kennedy (1890 – 1995)

Growing up as the mayor’s daughter in Boston, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy truly rose to prominence as the political matriarch of the Kennedy family. She had nine children with her financier husband, Joe Kennedy, but was beset with family tragedy with the sudden deaths of her children Joe Jr., Kathleen, John, and Robert, and the institutionalization of her daughter Rosemary. Of her grief, she had said, “”Wasn’t there a book about Michelangelo called ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’? That’s what my life has been.” Still, her fierce Irish Catholic faith held strong, and she remained a fervent supporter in politics and in philanthropy, especially with mental health advocacy, throughout most of her life.


Ruth Ellis (1899 – 2000)

The name Ruth Ellis is synonymous with “trailblazer.” Ellis was the first known openly lesbian civil rights and LGBTQ activist. She and her partner, Babe Franklin, moved to Detroit in the 1930s and bought a house together; Ellis would become the first woman to own and run a printing company. Soon, their home became a sanctuary for those in the LGBTQ community to gather and, sometimes, to take shelter if they had nowhere else to go. Later in her life, she took up an activist stance on a national level, often speaking at special events and programs at centers across the U.S. Now, in Highland Park, Michigan, the Ruth Ellis Center is dedicated to assisting and serving homeless LGBTQ youth and young adults in crisis.


Margaret Byrd Rawson (1899 – 2001)

Rawson made history as a literacy pioneer. Raised in Philadelphia, and a graduate of Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, she recognized neurological language problems while working with her students, which prompted her to advise on materials to help those with dyslexia, and conduct long-term studies on the progress of dyslexic students. On her 100th birthday, Rawson received the lifetime achievement award from the International Dyslexia Association.


Ann Nixon Cooper (1902 – 2009)

Cooper grew up alongside relatives who were domestic workers for affluent white families in Tennessee, but, after marrying a well-respected dentist and moving to Atlanta, she soon became a leader of community initiatives, which included a reading program at Ebenezer Baptist Church and a youth group for African American girls. Later in life, she achieved national attention in President Barack Obama’s post-election speech, which mentioned her extraordinary spirit and determination. Her excitement for a new political age, and radiant vitality, was also communicated in some advice for young people: “Keep smiling. No matter what, you get out and vote. Vote your choice.”


Enolia McMillan (1904 – 2006)

The daughter of a former slave, McMillan was born in Willow Grove, PA, and later attended Howard University before starting her lauded teaching career in Baltimore. After 35 years in education, McMillan became the first female president of the NAACP in 1969, reinvigorating the Baltimore chapter while being instrumental in moving the organization from New York to Baltimore.


Margaret “Peggy” Howe Freydberg (1908 – 2015)

In a cottage in Martha’s Vineyard, there lived a woman who wrote 11 books – novels, a memoir, and three books of poetry – but, who only started writing after marrying for a second time (her first husband passed away suddenly after hip surgery). Inspired by her marriage, travels, and Martha’s Vineyard, Freydberg completed and published her final work, Poems from the Pond, at the age of 104. She had spoken frankly about the aging process, and concluded: “I tell myself that I must see something in the mirror besides my wrinkled veneer if I am to have any calm; that I will have to make my peace with the loss of smooth skin, and find satisfaction in the gaining of something to take its place.”


Amelia Boynton Robinson (1911 – 2015)

There are many chronicles from the Civil Rights movement, but few carry the visual potency of Amelia Boynton Robinson. Her name and image became iconic in 1965 on Bloody Sunday during the march to Montgomery, Alabama, on the Selma bridge when a photograph was taken of her, beaten and gassed. Her courageous act on that day led to the signing of the federal Voting Rights Act into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In her youth, Robinson studied under George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute, and spent decades working to register African American voters in Alabama. She was deeply involved with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1964, she was the first black woman to run for Congress from Alabama.


Clare Hollingworth (1911 – 2017)

Journalists dream of reporting the “scoop” of their career, and, a mere week into her job at The Daily Telegraph in 1939, Clare Hollingworth found hers when she broke the news of the start of World War II. For the next four decades, she would go on to become a war correspondent for many of the major global conflicts in the twentieth-century – often, invoking criticism for being so deep in her reportage that she was accused of being a spy. As a young woman in England, she called off her engagement in order to go to university and become a journalist; her career took primacy throughout her life, and until her death, she slept with her passport – just in case.


Grace Lee Boggs (1915 – 2015)

The daughter of Chinese immigrants who was raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, Boggs has been recognized as one of the oldest and most steadfast human rights activists. A student of leftist philosophy, her role in politics fully emerged once she moved to Detroit and married James Boggs, who was a Civil Rights activist. The couple became in engaged in the Black Power movement, and later became an advocate for fair labor, feminism, and environmental issues. Later in life, her activism took the form of community organization: founding food cooperatives, support groups for Detroit’s elderly and jobless, crime watch initiatives, public gardens, and even opening a charter elementary school.

Two of our favorite accomplished ladies who are still with us (as of 1.23.17)

Author Beverly Cleary

Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland


Content compiled by Carrie Chapter. Images courtesy of Creative Commons and Getty Images.