Gertrude Weil, 1879 - 1971
The passion with which Smith students debated the candidates and issues in a mock presidential election in 1900 heightened Weil's consciousness of women's exclusion from the political process. She became convinced that the economic and social problems she encountered through her studies, as well as through her work with the Woman's Club movement, could not be resolved without addressing women's political disabilities. "I wondered why people made speeches in favor of something so obviously right," she later recalled. "Women breathed the same air, got the same education; it was ridiculous, spending so much energy and elocution on something rightfully theirs."
Despite the opposition of her mother and other relatives to women's suffrage, Weil helped found the Goldsboro Equal Suffrage Association in 1914 and served as its first president. By 1917, she was an officer in the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League, becoming president in 1919. The same year, she declined a nomination for the presidency of the North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs to concentrate on the fight for suffrage.
During the crucial years of 1919 and 1920, Weil navigated the complicated racial and states' rights issues that swirled around suffrage in the South. She was a powerful motivator. Working closely with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she gathered thousands of names on petitions, obtained endorsements from prominent North Carolina men and traveled the state to rally supporters. Despite Weil's best efforts, however, the North Carolina legislature failed to lend its support to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Despite rumors that she would run for office, Weil limited herself to working to improve the political system. In 1920, she established the North Carolina League of Women Voters, dedicated to educating women about the political system and their newly won rights. She also became a leader in the Legislative Council of North Carolina, organized to advance progressive social reforms. In 1922, she made headlines when she destroyed stacks of previously marked ballots intended to be stuffed into ballot boxes to fix an election.
- Quotation from Moses Rountree, Strangers in the Land: The Story of Jacob Weil's Tribe (Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1969), 133.
- Additional information from Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson, North Carolina Women: Making History (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 260; Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, "Women and the Transformation of American Politics: North Carolina, 1898-1940," Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1995, 219, 310; Anne Firor Scott, "Gertrude Weil and her Times," unpublished paper delivered at "Women Working For Social Change: The Legacy of Gertrude Weil," Symposium presented by the Women's Studies Program, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, March 17, 1984, 10-11.