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Sylvia Contover, 99, of Chelmsford, Mass., places her vote for president in the ballot box during early voting. (Alana Melanson/The Sun of Lowell, Mass.)
Sylvia Contover, 99, of Chelmsford, Mass., places her vote for president in the ballot box during early voting. (Alana Melanson/The Sun of Lowell, Mass.)

u.s. election 2016

Sylvia Contover has one wish for her 100th birthday: a female president Add to ...

On Tuesday night, Sylvia Contover will be sitting in her living room in Chelmsford, Mass., watching television, maybe eating a little snack, and pondering the arc of history.

When Ms. Contover was born in 1917, women did not have the right to vote in the United States. In January, she will turn 100 and she tells everyone she meets what she would like as a birthday gift: a woman as president.

Ms. Contover has already done her part. Late last month, she placed her sealed ballot in a box at the town office, where early voting was under way. “It felt wonderful, wonderful,” to vote for Hillary Clinton, she says. “It felt wonderful when [Barack] Obama came in, too.”

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As Hillary Clinton moves closer to a potential victory, women around the country are finding ways to mark the historic nature of the vote. Some are wearing white, the colour worn by suffragettes, to cast their ballots. The cemetery that is home to the grave of Susan B. Anthony, a feminist pioneer, will stay open late on Tuesday night to accommodate visitors paying their respects.

In 1920, three years after Ms. Contover was born, American women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The first presidential election where she was eligible to cast a ballot came in 1940 (at that point, the voting age was still 21). She has voted diligently ever since.

Born in Lowell, Mass., to Greek immigrant parents, Ms. Contover was determined to assimilate into her native country. She noticed that Republicans, usually Protestants, held many positions of power in town. So she marched into her local polling place – an Irish social club – and announced her intention to vote Republican. “What a shock it must have been for everybody,” she says with a laugh.

Ms. Contover’s father had died when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise five children by herself. Asked what the expectations were of women when she was young, Ms. Contover chuckles. “There were no expectations of women,” she says. “Just do what your husband says.”

After finishing high school, Ms. Contover wanted to go to college, but her grades were poor and besides, she couldn’t afford it. During the Second World War, all four of her siblings – three brothers and a sister – served in the military while she worked in a local parachute factory.

She met her husband, Louis, at a friend’s house and they moved to New York in 1944. She immediately became pregnant and spent the following years raising her son. The family lived for three years in Greece, an attempt to ameliorate her husband’s emphysema. With the exception of her time overseas, Ms. Contover has voted in every election, federal and local, usually for Republicans but sometimes for Democrats.

After her husband died, she went back to school. At the age of 69, she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology – cum laude, she notes – from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Then she kept going: In 1992, she earned a master’s degree in social psychology. All the while, she worked as a library assistant at the university, a job she held until she was 85.

While she still describes herself as a liberal Republican, she voted for Barack Obama twice and finds the party’s stance on reproductive rights repellent. She thinks Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, is terrible but mesmerizing. “I kept watching the election because I wanted to see what he was getting away with,” she says.

A diminutive woman with curly hair and an easy laugh, Ms. Contover never thought she would be able to vote for a female presidential candidate in her lifetime. “I do think men are wonderful, they take good care of us, but they want to be on top, they want to be boss,” she says. “This is a big deal for me.”

After living through 17 different presidents, her feeling is that the country will bounce back, even from a campaign as bitter and divisive as this one. On a recent visit to a nearby centre for senior citizens, Ms. Contover was wearing a Hillary Clinton button and got into a heated argument with another woman there. “I said, ‘Well, whoever wins, they’ll be our president and we’ll follow them.’ ” The woman agreed. “So that’s what will happen.”

After Tuesday’s election, Ms. Contover will return to her regular routine: lunches with friends, a weekly painting class, visits to the doctor. But she is looking ahead to Jan. 30, her birthday, 10 days after the presidential inauguration.

“I had two goals,” she says. “A goal to get to be 100 and I think I’m going to make that. And then this goal to have a woman president.” She pauses. “Isn’t that fun? I think we’re going to make it.”

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