Gertrude Weil, 1879 - 1971
"Hip! Hip! Hurray!!! Let the joyful news be spread! Gertrude Weil is a member of the class of 1901!" Although higher education for women was still rare in the late 1890s, Weil's high school experiences, her family's support, and her own inquiring mind pushed her to attend college. In 1901, she became North Carolina's first alumna of Smith College.
Smith awakened Weil to a world of new opportunities for women. The strong, independent women she saw around her—professors, fellow students, and those in the Northampton community—defied traditional norms of feminine behavior and gave her an intense respect for women's collective action. Although Weil was constantly warning her parents that she was about to fail an exam or a course, her education taught her how to learn and how to question the political and economic system. Well into her 80s, she would impress her family and friends with her insightful analyses of politics, literature, the arts, and many other subjects.
Smith also reinforced lessons Weil's family had instilled in her. In addition to attending college-sponsored programs on social and political topics, Weil volunteered for Northampton's Home Culture Club, teaching writing to working men and women. A school trip to New York's teeming immigrant neighborhoods brought intense poverty before her own eyes, further intensifying her belief in the importance of social service work. And despite the challenges of being Jewish at Smith, Weil maintained her commitment to Judaism throughout her college years.
Even among women's colleges, Smith was unusual in the late 19th century for the attention it devoted to women's history, economics, and political issues. A series of lectures on the economic status of women and "Schemes of Reform in Women's Wages" were central to Weil's understanding of the relationship between social and economic conditions. By the time she graduated, Weil was an "avowed suffragist," convinced that women's political disabilities lay at the root of a broad range of contemporary problems.
- Quotation from letter from Gertrude Weil to her family, September 23, 1897, in the Gertrude Weil Papers at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
- Additional information from Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, "The Emerging Political Consciousness of Gertrude Weil: Education and Women's Clubs, 1897-1914," MA thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1986, 20-37; Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson, North Carolina Women: Making History (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 259; and conversation with Emily Weil, April 2001.