Jan Mahler Elbaum was born in 1920, the year women finally got the vote in the United States, and evidently this confluence set her on a path for life.
“I first voted in 1941 and thereafter in every election I could,” said Elbaum.
Now, at age 100, her political fervor has not abated.
“I am a Democrat, a human rights advocate — women’s rights, gay rights. I have marched and struggled, I have been an activist all my life,” she said.
A member of the Concerned Citizens Club of Laguna Woods Village, Elbaum is well-known for her activism and being a voracious reader, adroit lecturer, lover of the arts and reviewer of books.
In March, in honor of Women’s History Month, the club’s program committee wanted to present a review of a book about women. Elbaum offered to review “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement” by investigative journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. She was enthusiastically endorsed by committee member and friend Margaret Perlman, 101, who attested that she had a few #MeToo moments of her own.
Elbaum’s review, originally set for March but rescheduled due to the pandemic, has already aired once on Village Television Channel 6 on July 29 and will repeat at 1 p.m. Aug. 5. It will also become available on YouTube along with other Concerned Citizens programming.
Initially, Elbaum said, she found the book a bit confusing because of its jumble of information, but was soon drawn in.
“I really did get into the book because I love mystery stories,” she said.
She was impressed by the authors’ resourcefulness in finding sources and the section describing the events involving disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Published in September of 2019, the roughly 300-page book showcases the investigative efforts of the reporters, who interviewed many well-known actresses and film industry women who talked about their demoralizing experiences with Weinstein. Allegations included unwanted groping and requests for and offers of massages and forcible oral sex, to outright rape.
The book also delves into women’s accounts of sexual harassment, coercion and rape by some powerful men in places ranging from the entertainment world to the halls of justice.
After the book came out, many women came forward with their stories, and that helped fuel discussions about sexual harassment and the imbalance of power in the entertainment industries and others, Elbaum said. The authors won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
“Great detective work. They deserved the Pulitzer,” said Elbaum who acknowledged that she has had her share of #MeToo experiences over the years as an aspiring actress, college student and Army enlistee during World War II.
The scenarios described by Kanto and Twohey are nothing new — what’s new is that people are finally talking openly about such matters, she said.
“There had been Hollywood rumors since the silent movies, with women forced to consent to men if they wanted to work,” Elbaum said. “Weinstein is one of the first to be publicly exposed. The power was always at the top.”
During college, Elbaum performed in amateur theater productions and hoped to move on to professional theater gigs.
“I played Shakespearean heroines, Juliet, Desdemona, but also performed in more contemporary plays,” she recalled.
However, professional roles eluded her. The casting couch was a reality that drove her away from a career in theater, she said. “If you did not cooperate, you did not get a job.”
She opted for higher learning, earning a bachelor’s in 1939 and a master’s in 1940 from New York University in English literature and medieval history. She also received a certificate of completion from the University of Judaism in 1957.
During her Channel 6 television presentation, Elbaum recounted how she dodged predatory, groping professors and bullying male students who made it clear they did not want women in their classes.
“They either insulted or threatened you,” she said.
Undaunted, she went on to become a gifted educator with a profound interest in religion and art.
In 1942, Elbaum enlisted in the Army and found herself in Texas, where she deployed her skills as a ham radio operator. There, she recalled, the colonel in charge held dim views of women working.
“Conditions were such that of the original 54 Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACS) enlistees, only seven re-enlisted,” she recalled. “They treated us shamefully.”
From 1942-46 she served as administrative assistant to the admiral in charge of the 11th Naval District, a classified civilian employee.
She loved her job but found herself embedded in another “boys will be boys” den.
“We had a lieutenant who touched and grabbed, pushed and pinched — anyone who was even remotely attractive,” Elbaum said. “The upshot: Although women had complained about his antics, he got promoted to Lt. Commander and sent off to Washington.”
In 1947, at age 27, she married Murray “Morris” Elbaum, whom she lovingly describes as a Mensch. During the 64 years of their marriage, the couple raised six children, welcomed eight grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. Murray passed away in 2010.
The couple moved to what was then Leisure World in 1986. But, leisure for the couple meant work and community involvement. Teaching Emeritus courses counts among Jan Mahler Elbaum’s many accomplishments. Think of art (stained-glass and others) classes and religion courses such as The Bible as Literature and Biblical Heroes and Heroines. Her ceramics, stained-glass windows and intricate Japanese-inspired embroidery have been inspirations to the fellow artists who call Clubhouse Four home.
Yet, she describes a happy marriage and raising a loving and successful family as her greatest joy. And, perhaps intuitively foreshadowing the spirit of current times, she said: “I raised my children to be color blind.”
Source: Orange County Register