Senior Times: Retirement Doesn't Mean Being Complacent: Florence Seldin, Activist

By: Debra Lawless

Florence Seldin. COURTESY PHOTO

In 1920, when American women were given the right to vote, Florence Seldin’s mother was a 15-year-old for whom this historic victory was of vast significance.

“She voted religiously and taught her kids to vote religiously,” Seldin recalled during a telephone interview last Saturday. “Maybe my roots in activism start there.”

Seldin, now 86, served from 2009 to 2015 on the Chatham Board of Selectmen and is currently a member of the Chatham Finance Committee. Since the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump last January, Seldin has had a busy few months. During this period Trump has created much controversy in trying to rescind the Affordable Care Act (ACA), question climate change and destroy a free press. Seldin has responded by stepping up her activities as an activist.

“Activism has been a technique to show that people are together, you’re not alone,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your party affiliation is, if you believe in something, you should stand up for it.”

On Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, Seldin climbed onto one of seven buses hired by the League of Women Voters of the Cape Cod Area and headed up to the Boston Women’s March for America. There she joined roughly 100,000 others in raising their voices against government policies that hurt women and the vulnerable.

“It was really great, it really was,” Seldin recalls. “There was an energy, there was a feeling that people were together.” This type of activism is a family affair in the Seldin clan—her daughter, granddaughter and niece marched in Washington, D.C. while another granddaughter marched on the West Coast.

Instead of a pink “pussy hat,” Seldin wore a bumper sticker that she dressed up with ribbons. It said “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” People came up to her and asked if they could take her picture. By the end of the day, her feet were numb.

Since then, Seldin has also attended rallies in Orleans and Chatham. At one rally, she met a woman in her 80s from Barnstable who said she had never done anything like this.

Seldin earned a Ph.D. in education at the University of Rochester and worked as a teacher and administrator in elementary school education. At one time she was principal of an elementary school and knew the names of all 650 students in the school. From 1988 to 1992 she served as the kindergarten through 12th grade superintendent in the town of Harvard school system. During the years she and her husband Ira raised their son and daughter, they moved several times between New York and Massachusetts. They settled in Chatham full-time in 1994 and they are now the grandparents of five.

Last winter Seldin attended the first meeting of Lower Cape Indivisible (LCI) at the Brewster Baptist Church. Seldin says the church was “packed.” People were asking “what can we do? Are there other people who feel like we do?” LCI is one of about 6,000 groups in the U.S. using the online “Indivisible Guide” to fight against political agendas “that subvert American democracy,” according to its website. Seldin now serves on LCI’s steering committee.

She notes that civil discussions are needed, not further polarization. And she speaks out on retaining the ACA.

“I believe strongly health care is a right,” she says. “Why should some people not be able to get health care because they can’t afford it?” She decries people going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills.

Activism is nothing new to Seldin, and as she defines it, it takes many forms. For example, in the 1970s, when she was a school administrator in New York State, she participated in a statewide commission looking at discrimination against women because only one of 19 or 20 school districts was headed by a woman.

On the Cape she delved into affordable housing issues and the affordable housing committee was her first board appointment. And, always circling back to her mother’s strong encouragement to vote, she affiliated herself with the Cape’s League of Women Voters and served as that group’s president from 1997 to 2000. She notes that in the 2016 election a disappointing 90 million eligible voters failed to vote but she applauds the Massachusetts law that allows 16 year olds to pre-register to vote when they turn 18.

So with all the chaos and noise at the national level, what can you do? Seldin has some answers. You can involve yourself in local get-out-the-vote efforts on election day. If you’re concerned about global warming, volunteer for your town’s conservation commission or planning board. That way you can oversee the protection of wetlands and make your mark protecting the natural world. You can become involved through something as simple as attending a meeting, or writing a letter to the editor.

Seldin’s work on behalf of the town and its citizens has paid off. Recently a stranger hugged her when she came out of the supermarket and said, “Thank you for what you did for Chatham.”

“I’m an activist for my grandchildren,” she says. “It would be easy to sit home. I’m old. Put my feet up, read my books.”

But, she repeats, “democracy is not a spectator sport.”