The day before officially choosing the presidential nominee for president at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Felicia Kahn was in a Denver hospital, felled by altitude sickness.
She was at the convention the next day, voting from a wheelchair. “They said I had to use it, because I was old,” she said recently, with a slight smile and bare roll of her brown eyes.
Eight years later, Kahn technically fits that description. She turned 90 on July 11.
Of course, she plans to be in Philadelphia Monday through Thursday for the Democratic National Convention. She’s an elected delegate, one of three chosen in a citywide election. Felicia Kahn has missed only one convention since 1976. She’s been a delegate to five (for Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and twice for Hillary Clinton), an alternate once.
Old? Felicia? Everyone calls her by her first name.
She goes to art galleries, jazz concerts, lectures, symposiums, political events, lunches for causes such as Planned Parenthood. She welcomes foreign visitors into her home for dinner.
Kahn drives herself around in the daytime, going to events with friends after dark. She may walk more slowly (knee replacements) and can’t always keep up with moves at her five-day a week exercise classes at the Jewish Community Center. Corneal transplants were needed. Surgeries “have given me new life,” she said.
But that’s physical stuff. If you have time, ask her about politics – local, statewide and national.
Just under 5 feet – she’s not sure how tall she is these days – Kahn was in full gear late last month at a gathering of 25 volunteers in her Uptown mid-century modern home. She wore a doll-size top hat with red, white and blue net in her dark brown, bobbed hair. Around her neck were red Carnival type beads dangling a Democratic donkey; and on her black jacket were another donkey pin and two Hillary buttons.
“Felicia’s a role model for what everybody in the party should be. She never stops,” said Lynda Woolard, president of the Independent Women’s Organization, a group of Democratic women organized in the 1940s. Woolard met Kahn, who also had led IWO, at a party at Tipitina’s the night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
“My issue is to get more women speaking out,” Kahn said, going into detail about all she has encountered and the changes she has seen along the way. Her knowledge of politics and the issues is encyclopedic, and she is passionate about sharing it all, looking into the eyes of anyone who will listen, and slicing the air with her hands, as she emphasizes her points.
Admittedly some people retreat. But others, like 25-year-old Liz Brusseau, want to know more. On her way out after the meeting, she stopped to listen when she overheard Kahn answering questions about her life.
“When I was 21, I was on the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, and Felicia took me under her wing, showing me the ropes and telling me who was who,” said Brusseau, now a graduate student at Tulane. “She is a force.”
When Kahn graduated from Newcomb College in 1948, she didn’t expect to live the life she has so far. She recalled a college human relations class: “We studied (cultural anthropologist) Margaret Mead and other cultures, but we didn’t talk at all about the separation of race in Louisiana and the United States, or what was going on around us.”
Kahn said one of the few jobs for women graduates of Newcomb, besides teaching, was as a client visitor for the Department of Public Welfare.
“Black and white women worked beside each other in the welfare department,” she said. It disturbed her though that they ate in separate lunch rooms, and that a black co-worker had to travel to Baton Rouge to earn a graduate degree in social work, because there wasn’t a place in New Orleans for her to do so. “It seemed ridiculous.”
Kahn quit when she had a family – two daughters, Elizabeth and Felicia “Taffy”, and a son, Chip. But beginning in the 1950s, she volunteered for the non-partisan League of Women Voters, serving as president in 1966-69, when she became a habitué of newsrooms, pushing for coverage, and traveled to Baton Rouge to lobby the legislature on issues such as voting, school integration and poverty programs.
“There were all these wonderful women who had all these skills and could have been elected officials, but weren’t because people didn’t think of women as being elected officials back then,” said Kahn.
She eventually decided to leave LWV so she could participate in partisan politics. “The feminist movement came along in the 1960s. Books by Betty Friedan and others made me aware. After the convention fiasco in 1968 in Chicago, the Democratic Party reorganized and changed rules.” Kahn won an election for State Central Committee in 1971. “I got interested in women in politics. That’s still my issue, to get more women speaking out.”
She admits her energy isn’t as great as it used to be. “But I see my life as an activist. I can encourage people to do things. I like to get people together who have similar interests and can benefit from each other.”
There also are three grandchildren. Her youngest just graduated as valedictorian from his high school in Arlington, Virginia. “I told him, ‘I’m sorry I don’t live near you.’ And he said, ‘I always listen to you.’” She smiled and nodded.
“I want him and the others to grow up and vote Democrat,” she said, half laughing. Truth is, she means it.