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North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2

North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2

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North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2

747 pagine
10 ore
Jul 1, 2015


By the twentieth century, North Carolina’s progressive streak had strengthened, thanks in large part to a growing number of women who engaged in and influenced state and national policies and politics. These women included Gertrude Weil who fought tirelessly for the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended suffrage to women, and founded the state chapter of the League of Women Voters once the amendment was ratified in 1920. Gladys Avery Tillett, an ardent Democrat and supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal, became a major presence in her party at both the state and national levels. Guion Griffis Johnson turned to volunteer work in the postwar years, becoming one of the state's most prominent female civic leaders. Through her excellent education, keen legal mind, and family prominence, Susie Sharp in 1949 became the first woman judge in North Carolina and in 1974 the first woman in the nation to be elected and serve as chief justice of a state supreme court. Throughout her life, the Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray charted a religious, literary, and political path to racial reconciliation on both a national stage and in North Carolina.

This is the second of two volumes that together explore the diverse and changing patterns of North Carolina women's lives. The essays in this volume cover the period beginning with women born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but who made their greatest contributions to the social, political, cultural, legal, and economic life of the state during the late progressive era through the late twentieth century.

Jul 1, 2015

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ANN SHORT CHIRHART is an assistant professor of history at Indiana State University.

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North Carolina Women - Ann Short Chirhart




North Carolina has had more than its share of accomplished, influential women. Many of them quietly—a few noisily—expanded women’s sphere of influence or broke through barriers that had long defined and circumscribed women’s lives. North Carolina is a curious state, with its three distinct geographies (coast, Piedmont, and mountains), its mixed resources, and its numerous small-scale metropolitan centers. For these reasons and more, it has had its own peculiar and frequently downplayed history, sandwiched between two more braggadocio states, Virginia and South Carolina. Women in North Carolina seem all the more remarkable for living in and influencing a place often dubbed the Rip Van Winkle state. That nickname has seemed apt, at least until the Civil War, because of the state’s underdeveloped, seemingly backward social and political structure and limited cultural and intellectual life. Indeed, dispirited travelers found little reason to linger as they made their way across North Carolina, wondering how to traverse its pine forests, sandy soil, and uninspiring landscape in the east, and its inhospitable mountain ranges to the west, as rapidly as possible.

Nor was North Carolina’s early history particularly noteworthy, other than its claiming the short-lived Roanoke Colony. Settled permanently in 1670 by the British as a part of the larger Carolina colony, North Carolina did not become a separate entity until 1729. While the colony was home to some thirty thriving Native American tribes, including Cherokees, Catawbas, Tuscaroras, Enos, and others, warfare and European diseases initially decimated them, although some groups rebounded in time to shape an emergent North Carolina. Yet women made their mark from the earliest settlement, if measured by compensatory history alone. It was in the Roanoke Colony where the first British baby in the mainland American colonies, Virginia Dare, was born in 1587. The first book published in North Carolina, Matilda Berkeley; or, Family Anecdotes, was written by a woman, Winifred Marshall Gales, in 1804.

Women’s impact on North Carolina is difficult to find in most state history books. Hugh Lefler and Albert Newsome’s 1954 volume mentions women a mere six times in 676 pages. Jeffrey Crow and Larry Tise’s 1979 Writing North Carolina History volume, a wonderful book in many other ways, references women only eight times. Five years later, Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson’s coedited North Carolina Experience included a single chapter (out of nineteen) on women, while William Powell’s 1989 North Carolina through Four Centuries has a single section dedicated to women (on suffrage), in chapter 23. But these books and figures should not overshadow another important reality. Beginning in the 1980s, the North Carolina Museum and the North Carolina Division of Archives and History worked behind the scenes to explore the history of half the state’s population. These efforts culminated in many important efforts, including an issue of the North Carolina Historical Review devoted to women’s history in 1991 and a major exhibition on women’s history at the museum in 1994. These significant developments reflected rediscovery of classic texts like Guion Griffis Johnson’s Ante-Bellum North Carolina, published in 1937, which prominently featured women’s social history, as well as such newer (and now classic) works as Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (1987), by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and others.

Not so coincidentally, by the end of this last century and into the twenty-first, an exceptional group of researchers has been publishing outstanding women’s history scholarship based on North Carolina sources and North Carolina women, including Kirsten Fisher’s Suspect Relations: Sex, Race and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (2002); Jane Turner Censer’s North Carolina Planters and Their Children (1984), on elite antebellum families; Victoria Bynum’s Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (1992), on impoverished, often ill-behaved women in three Piedmont counties; Laura Edwards’s Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (1997), on how ideas about men’s and women’s roles within households shaped conceptions of the public arena; and Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (1996), on African American women’s leadership during the nadir of post–Civil War race relations. These signal works were accompanied by numerous theses, dissertations, and scholarly articles on women’s and gender history, all based on North Carolina sources, all fleshing out North Carolina women’s lives and North Carolina’s changing conceptions of women’s roles.

Yet surprisingly, few North Carolina women have been the subjects of full-length biographies. In 1999 Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Wilson helped fill this void with their invaluable contribution, North Carolina Women: Making History, an engaging, comprehensive overview of important women in the state, threaded with absorbing biographical vignettes. Over a decade later, our two-volume collection on North Carolina women springs from this outpouring of new work. Under the skillful hand of our thirty-six authors, the forty some women featured in our project, diverse in time, place, religion, race, class, experience, and ideology, have much to teach us about North Carolina’s past as well as about the larger story of women in the South, and indeed, the nation.

Because of North Carolina’s unique early history as a somnolent state and the impact this somnolence has had on its women, we have elected to divide our two-volume history of North Carolina women not at the Civil War era, a standard approach in many two-volume American and southern history collections, but instead with the emerging progressive era. Thus, the essays in volume 1 begin with women born across the Atlantic world—in England and Africa—as well as in the American colonies who lived for at least part of their lives in eighteenth-century North Carolina and end with North Carolina women born in the second half of the nineteenth century who came of age in the 1890s and early twentieth century. The essays in volume 2 begin with women born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but who made their greatest contributions to the social, political, cultural, legal, and economic life of the state from the late progressive era through the late twentieth century.

The volumes as a whole illustrate that in many key respects North Carolina women do not differ all that much from their southern sisters. But in significant ways, especially given their experiences in the industrializing Piedmont and in the Appalachian mountains, they differed dramatically. Like other colonies in the Southeast, North Carolina’s population gradually increased throughout the eighteenth century, as whites moved down from Virginia, searching for cheap farmland and a place to settle. Others, including the Scotch-Irish, Quakers, and Moravians, followed the wagon road south from Pennsylvania to establish communities in the Piedmont. Slavery spread slowly because lucrative cash crops such as rice, tobacco, and cotton never dominated antebellum North Carolina’s economy, having their greatest influence only in the northeastern part of the state. By 1860 slaves constituted a third of the state’s population, but remained concentrated in this region.

Like much of the South, and the nation as a whole, North Carolina was rural and agrarian until well into the twentieth century. Only a small percentage of its people lived in towns and cities, which meant the majority of women lived their lives centered on farm, family, and church and rarely became involved in the larger world of politics and commerce. The state had neither a substantial port nor extensive transportation networks, so North Carolina’s yeoman farmers had limited access to the nation’s growing market economy. During the Civil War, North Carolina contributed tens of thousands of men to fight for the Confederacy and suffered greater casualties than any other southern state, while women on the home front played a major role and suffered greatly as well. Because little actual fighting took place in North Carolina, the destruction of homes and farms was minimal. Nevertheless, women across the state experienced sustained hardship, exhaustion, and deprivation as they struggled to farm their land in order to feed and clothe their children, as well as the soldiers in Lee’s army. Women in the Piedmont organized a bread riot in Salisbury, while women in the mountains confronted roving bands of deserters and guerrilla warfare on top of these other considerable challenges. But while white women mourned their losses and struggled to endure as the Civil War ground on, enslaved women began to imagine a brighter future for themselves and their families, especially in the wake of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

White women contributed to the construction of pro-southern ideology both during and after the war, and their gendered identity was important to its perpetuation. Diarist Catherine Devereux Edmonston located her Confederate nationalism squarely in her domestic work and gendered identity. North Carolinians were so eager to claim their place in the myth of the Lost Cause that they adopted Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow—whose only affiliation with the state was her death by drowning just off the North Carolina coast—as their own North Carolina heroine through their subsequent celebration in public memory of her role in the Confederacy. Given the power of this ideology, as well as the losses suffered, many whites, whether or not they had been slaveholders, found Reconstruction a bitter pill. With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment emancipating slaves in 1865, whites saw the social order they had known turned upside down. Along with continuing economic hardships, the racial hierarchy whites had considered key to a well-ordered society was gone. Blaming freedpeople and the federal government for the postwar turmoil they were experiencing became de rigeur. By contrast, black men and women held out hope they would gain full equality and all the rights and opportunities whites enjoyed. Such hopes soon faded. Though Jim Crow laws came late to North Carolina, racial segregation was legalized, and violence increased by the turn of the century. The state’s African American population had little choice but to turn inward and carve out meaningful lives within their own communities or seek out new opportunities in the North.

Meanwhile, postbellum white women, some of them former slaveholders, began to expand their roles, whether due to their increased access to education, their need to earn a living, or their interest in the wave of progressive reform sweeping the nation. These expanded gender roles were not always accompanied by a feminist sensibility and even less so by an avidity for racial equality. Cornelia Spencer, for example, proved a rigid traditionalist who wielded power through her friendships with important men and through her keen mind and literary accomplishments, but she eschewed women’s equality and opposed political and civil rights for African Americans.

By the late nineteenth century North Carolina’s reputation as a sleepy, even backward southern state was no longer totally deserved, however, for it exhibited a progressive streak, one that positively influenced women, black as well as white. During the antebellum period, the General Assembly had debated the need to educate the state’s white children. It passed laws setting aside public funds and then appointing a superintendent of public instruction to advance education throughout the state. After the Civil War northern missionaries who came south aided this effort by establishing churches, Sunday schools, and schools to serve former slaves. These efforts led to the founding of a number of black schools and colleges, including Scotia Seminary (later Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, the first school in the state for African American women. North Carolina A&T State University opened its doors to African American students, male and female, in 1891. Recognizing that the state had committed itself to providing public higher education for black women before it had done so for white women, the General Assembly in 1891 chartered the State Normal and Industrial School (later the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), one of the nation’s first publicly funded colleges for white women. Private schools and colleges such as St. Mary’s School and Meredith College in Raleigh, Greensboro College, Queens College in Charlotte, and Salem College offered privileged white women unprecedented access to higher education.

At the end of the nineteenth century North Carolina progressives’ commitment to generating educational opportunities played a pivotal role in the lives of many women, white and black alike, inspiring their activism and involvement in a world beyond their traditional domestic sphere. Educated women, and especially those in the newly developing towns and cities of the state, saw new possibilities opening up to them. They pursued careers in medicine, law, and education and engaged in community action, social uplift, and even politics. Earning a medical degree allowed Annie Alexander to become the state’s first licensed female physician. Margaret Jarman Hagood’s scholarly pursuits and work at the University of North Carolina led her to produce a classic study on southern farm women and then pursue the largely male-only profession of quantitative sociology to great success. Middle-and upper-class women’s interest in social engagement led to the formation of the North Carolina General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1902, which fostered a supportive network of public-spirited women. But broader experiences shaped these women’s outlooks too. Sallie Southall Cotten, North Carolina’s so-called Mother of Clubs, attended the World’s Fair in 1893. Her time in Chicago transformed this North Carolina woman by introducing her to a national culture of organized women. This formative experience pressed her to unite women and create a public role for their perspectives and concerns in North Carolina and the New South for thirty more years. Two of the wealthiest women in the state, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt, wife of philanthropist George Washington Vanderbilt, and Katharine Smith Reynolds, wife of R. J. Reynolds, the founder of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, not only played a critical role as patrons within each of their respective North Carolina communities, Asheville and Winston-Salem, but led significant social reform efforts across the state as well.

A number of African American women rose to prominence, due in part to their education but also to their wider social networks. Sarah Dudley Pettey, born into the first generation of freedom, used her writing to show black women pressing for women’s equality, both within their churches and across North Carolina society at large. Sadie and Bessie Delany, daughters of elite black educators in Raleigh who chose teaching and dentistry as their professions and exchanged North Carolina for New York City during the Great Migration, and Anna Julia Cooper, black feminist scholar, educator, and activist born into slavery—like so many other talented African American women whose opportunities were stunted by Jim Crow segregation laws and racism—had to leave North Carolina to make their lives and careers. Each, however, reflected on how central their lived experiences as North Carolinians proved to their intellectual and political identities. To think about American history or politics or black history without knowing about life in the South from an African American woman’s point of view was, these women asserted, narrow minded and profoundly limiting.

The marriage of progressivism and education in North Carolina around the turn of the twentieth century had a lasting influence on white and black women’s opportunities and their emerging public roles, but it is important to note that other factors had prompted some North Carolina women to pursue nontraditional trajectories throughout the state’s history. Widowhood or a husband’s inability to earn a living forced some women from the colonial era right down to the present into the public sphere to support their families. For a few North Carolina women, this entry into the public world brought fame and sometimes even wealth. The widow Elizabeth Maxwell Steele owned and ran a tavern in Salisbury, North Carolina, that became a gathering place for patriots during the American Revolution, gaining her local prominence and a permanent spot in North Carolinians’ memory, perhaps in part because of her self-identification as a great politician. After her husband developed major health problems in the wake of the Civil War, Alice Morgan Person supported her children by creating, manufacturing, and marketing a popular elixir that she transformed into a profitable business. Like a number of nineteenth-century women, Mary Bayard Clarke made a living by writing poems, stories, and essays and became one of the state’s best-known authors of her day. She fought for women’s professional acceptance regardless of marital status and pushed the boundaries of women’s personal and intellectual freedom in postbellum North Carolina. It is significant to note that Clarke was diarist Kate Edmonston’s sister, and both were sisters-in-law to Person. Educated women in nineteenth-century North Carolina remained part of an interconnected and powerful elite; their social networks were extensive and deep, and both aided women’s reform efforts and shaped their participation in them well into the twentieth century.

Industrialization brought major changes to North Carolina that profoundly shaped working-class women’s experiences and prospects. Textile factories moved from New England to the South beginning in the late nineteenth century in order to take advantage of cheap labor and easy access to raw cotton, just as tobacco production and manufacturing became a significant part of the state’s economy too. White and black women alike made up a large number of these paid laborers, although the textile labor force was largely white, while the tobacco labor force remained heavily African American. Many North Carolina families abandoned their hardscrabble existence as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, moving to one of the scores of cotton mill villages and tobacco factory towns springing up in the Piedmont to secure steady wages. Often entire families worked in these establishments, creating a strong sense of community even as all workers suffered low pay, long hours, and unhealthy working conditions, and black workers endured entrenched racism and even lower wages.

From the eighteenth century down to the present, in the midst of these larger structural changes, there were always a few ill-behaved women who ignored the unspoken rules regarding proper female behavior and made history by asserting their views or by protesting and stirring up trouble. In 1774 Edenton women held a tea party to boycott imported East India tea, joining male patriots in protesting British oppression, making them perhaps the first women in the colonies to organize against the British crown. The economic backgrounds of these fifty-one Edenton ladies who signed the petition show that while the majority of signers came from slave-owning families, some of the signatories were less well off, reflecting a social mix of women that intentionally honored politics over class. Even enslaved women in early North Carolina found ways to challenge their presumed subordination, as in the case of Anna, an African woman who was sold to the Moravian Church in Salem and then became integrated into the Salem and Bethabara communities after the American Revolution. When her relationship to her masters and to her biracial church fell into dispute, Anna secured respite as part of a black congregation created under the auspices of white leadership. She finally found the community of equals she had been denied in her work as a slave woman in a tavern and a religious community that kept such clear boundaries between whites and blacks.

In the next century, the slave Harriet Jacobs hid in an attic for years in order to escape her predatory master, eventually making her way north to freedom. Her narrative recounting her harrowing experiences has become a classic. The psychological impact of her prolonged fight for freedom, as well as the personal cost of her national fame by the end of her life, is a critical vantage point. A different kind of female assertiveness was evident in the twentieth century. Ella Mae Wiggins led her fellow workingmen and -women in a labor strike at Loray Mill in Gastonia in 1929; Crystal Lee Sutton, made famous in the film Norma Rae, did the same forty-four years later at the J. P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids. While Wiggins paid with her life for her perceived outspokenness, Sutton suffered personally and professionally long after she was fired.

Black and white North Carolina women’s growing access to education and the opportunities they created for themselves from that exposure, along with the innovative and courageous ways in which black and white women met serious economic challenges and social and political inequities, are all critical themes in this two-volume collection. But another important theme is that of place. North Carolina is well known for its distinctive regional geography and the ways its particular socioeconomic development has been shaped by it. Only eastern soil supported cash-crop plantation economies, for example, whereas the proximity to rivers to generate power and to produce bright-leaf tobacco helped dictate industrial development in the Piedmont. These realities of locale in turn shaped women’s experiences as daughters, wives, mothers, workers, reformers, leaders, and eventually full-fledged citizens.

The Appalachian region in the western part of the state had a profound impact on women’s lives, perhaps more so than any other region in the state, and attracted the interest and involvement of non-native-born women. Early in the twentieth century, sociologists, historians, missionaries, teachers, and reformers from more established parts of the country and Europe flocked to the North Carolina mountains to study this region’s people, to establish schools and churches, and to cultivate the region’s many craft traditions. Engaging in various mountain communities were women like Dr. Mary Martin Sloop, Lucy Morgan, and Olive Dame Campbell, who helped to found a number of institutions, including the Crossnore School, the Penland School, and the Campbell Folk School. The region also produced female artists such as Samantha Bumgarner, a talented singer and four-string banjo player, and Arizona Nick Swayney Blankenship, whose upbringing among the Cherokees led her to become a renowned basketmaker and teacher.

By the twentieth century, the state’s progressive streak strengthened, thanks in part to a growing number of women who engaged in and influenced state and national policies and politics. In 1902 Daisy Denson became the first woman to head the state’s welfare board, and from that position she addressed a number of issues, including child labor and prison reform. Women fought for the right to vote despite strong resistance. North Carolina’s male legislators were so opposed to women’s suffrage that at one point they sent the proposed Nineteenth Amendment to their committee on insane asylums. But to women, the issue was no joke, and some like Gertrude Weil fought tirelessly for the amendment. Once it was ratified in 1920 (but not by North Carolina until 1971), Weil founded the state chapter of the League of Women Voters to give women a stronger, better-informed voice on political issues. Gladys Avery Tillett, an ardent Democrat and supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal, became a major presence in her party at both the state and national levels. Best remembered by scholars for her pioneering works of social history, Guion Griffis Johnson turned to volunteer work in the postwar years, becoming one of the state’s most prominent female civic leaders. Through her excellent education, keen legal mind, and family prominence, Susie Sharp in 1949 became the first woman judge in North Carolina and, in 1974, the first woman in the nation elected to serve as chief justice of a state supreme court.

African American women were critical leaders too, active in both the progressive movement and the civil rights movement. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, born in North Carolina but educated in Boston, returned to her home state as a young woman and became one of the most successful fund-raisers among African American educators in U.S. history, heading Palmer Memorial Institute—an accredited and nationally recognized African American school—for fifty years before she died in 1961. Pauli Murray sought admittance to the University of North Carolina’s Law School but was rejected because of her race. Instead, she earned a law degree from Howard University and assisted Thurgood Marshall in researching the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Ella Baker, raised as a black Baptist in rural North Carolina, radicalized amid Harlem’s Renaissance and the subsequent Depression, came to embrace a deeply democratic philosophy throughout her long years of leadership in the civil rights movement. A critical supporter of the students who participated in sit-ins at Greensboro’s Woolworth store in 1960, she then encouraged them to found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to counter the more staid National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For all these important African American women, those who lived their entire lives in North Carolina and those who did not, their North Carolina experience was central to their understanding of their racial and gender identity and therefore to their reform work and political vision. This essential North Carolina experience was also reflected in the outpouring of North Carolina women’s writings in the last half of the twentieth century. North Carolina has boasted a long and distinguished literary history supported by outstanding writing programs at North Carolina’s colleges and universities. But it was not until the 1960s that a serendipitous intersection of talented women writers and this supportive literary environment launched an explosion of exceptional women authors on the literary scene, including Doris Betts, Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Pamela Duncan, Kathryn Stripling Byer, and Mary Mebane.

In acknowledging North Carolina women’s many achievements, one must also recognize them as products of their time. As a few essays show, some prominent white women—such as Cornelia Phillips Spencer, an influential figure at the University of North Carolina and in state politics, journalism, and higher education more generally, and professional author Mary Bayard Clarke—publicly endorsed white supremacy and infused their writings with racist comments. Nell Battle Lewis, a journalist who held liberal views on many social and economic issues, opposed the Brown v. Board of Education decision because it undercut her belief in the benefits of white paternalism, and she rallied her readers to embrace massive resistance. Ellen Winston, in some respects a liberal-minded woman of the twentieth century, supported the state’s eugenics program, believing that sterilizing individuals who were feeble-minded, insane, or overly promiscuous would have a positive influence on society, at the same time that she was building a pioneering welfare system to support the state’s underprivileged. While these views may be jarring, if not repellant to read today, they reveal widely held beliefs from a far different time.

We are proud to add these two volumes on North Carolina women to the series Their Lives and Times, published by the University of Georgia Press. The women included here only begin to celebrate the many outstanding women who broke barriers, achieved prominence, or made an impact on their communities, the state, or the nation. Since selectivity was essential, many deserving women had to be left out. Multiple factors influenced our choices, including the need for extensive, accessible primary sources; a relevant connection to North Carolina; an expert willing and able to research and write the essay; and a balanced representation of women across time, space, accomplishments, and race. With the exception of one essay on women writers past and present, we include here only those women who are deceased. We sought to incorporate a variety of interests and occupations and to balance a paucity of influential women from the colonial and antebellum periods with the many women who made their mark in the twentieth century.

We thank all our authors for the energy, commitment, and time they put into researching and writing these essays. We also wish to thank our wonderful now-retired editor, Nancy Grayson, and all the terrific staff at the University of Georgia Press, especially assistant acquisitions editor Beth Snead, managing editor Jon Davies, and freelance copy editor Barbara Wojhoski. The amazing individuals in these essays offer a broad exposure to the myriad contributions women made to the Tar Heel State and to its history. By all accounts, their extraordinary achievements and impact certainly belie the image of North Carolina as a sleepy state.

Gertrude Weil

Forever Young


Gertrude Weil, a dynamic personality in North Carolina history, was a tireless leader for progressive reforms in the state for much of the twentieth century. During the campaign to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, she could have been on the national stage with women like Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who, in later years, encouraged Weil to keep up the good work in her home state. Instead of leaving North Carolina behind, however, Weil had responded to an entreaty from her mother and in 1901, after graduating from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, had returned to Goldsboro to live in the family home for the rest of her long life. Although she experienced the luxuries of wealth, as a faithful Jew she believed that justice, mercy, and goodness were not to be held in a vacuum but practiced in our daily lives.¹ With that understanding, she embarked on a lifetime of service, with energy, wit, and determination.²

Miss Gertrude, as she was called by those who knew her personally and by reputation, seems never to have looked back at other paths she might have chosen. What if, for example, she had remained in the Northeast to pursue a career like many of her college friends? If she had asked herself that question, she must have thought about it soon after her graduation, when she embarked on travels with the kind of restlessness that can overtake the young at heart. But Gertrude Weil was always young at heart. Although she settled down in North Carolina, she continued her restless travels of the spirit.

Fortunately, the Weils were no ordinary family, and Goldsboro, no ordinary town. Gertrude’s parents, Mina and Henry Weil, and Henry’s brother Solomon and his wife, Sarah, were leading citizens, and their ardent practice of their Jewish beliefs meant that they were generous and public minded in every important community undertaking. Building on the legacy of their ancestors, the Weils carried their family tradition forward into the twenty-first century. By 1920 the Weils’ presence in business, education, and religious and civic life was perhaps second only to the presence of the railroad junction in putting Goldsboro, a town of about 11,300 people, on the map.

Gertrude Weil figures prominently in the history of women’s organizations advocating suffrage, the prevention of lynching, voter education, labor reform, and social welfare, as well as in the political arena of southern civil rights and international Zionism. In a state proud of its motto, esse quam videri (To be, rather than to seem), she spent six decades boldly allying herself with leading southern progressives—and she did it as a member of a small minority: an unmarried female Jew. Although books about other southern progressives have been published, no one has written a biography of Gertrude Weil, despite the excellent work of several scholars.³ The penalty she may have paid and paid willingly for a lifetime of voluntary service in her hometown and state is not to have been more widely known. Yet historical sources demonstrate clearly how often she led in critical times. Although she belonged to a circle of women working for many of the same causes, there was no one quite like Miss Gertrude.

Recapturing the effect Weil had on audiences and family and friends is elusive because it depended so much on the strength of her personality. She used words in a straightforward manner with good humor but without much eloquence; she was a storyteller, not an orator; and her understanding of social movements was more perceptive than analytical. Friends who relied on her for advice counted on her realistic approach to most problems; at the same time they found her ability to help them exhilarating.⁴ Gertrude Weil may be the kind of professional woman historians slight, an advocate for a cause (suffrage) that was won a long time ago, but not won in North Carolina after she championed it.

In 1964, when Smith College awarded its first Smith College Medal to distinguished alumnae, Gertrude Weil was one of five recipients (the only southerner) out of almost thirty-three thousand living graduates. The citation (with no mention of her Jewish causes and practices) placed her life and work in North Carolina in a national perspective for her career of public service so extensive that it [was] difficult to find in the state a cultural, charitable, welfare or civic organization with which she had not been connected.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when other women college graduates were starting careers, many of them in the new field of social work, Weil agreed to take up the volunteer’s role urged by her mother. Because her parents had wealth and a stable home, her economic and social needs were met. She was able to give money and time generously to organizations and individuals. Indeed, several women’s organizations considered her their financial mainstay. Gertrude Weil had the talent to use a public platform, as, for example, her close friend and president of the University of North Carolina, Frank Graham, used his school with its influential trustees and alumni. But because she remained free—unpaid and not beholden to a board, a boss, or a husband (her father did not rein her in)—she could and did speak her own mind. Some men, though not the Weil men, were unsure what to make of this smart woman, and one man thought she was tart-tongued during a heated political campaign.⁶ Gertrude’s most faithful supporters were the legions of members of women’s organizations who gave her standing ovations. She was a charming speaker, the natural life of parties, and a loyal friend. Even in old age her incredible vitality impressed visitors: Her blue eyes sparkle with fun and mischief.⁷ Historian Anne Firor Scott in an interview with Weil when Weil was eighty-four observed, In all my life, I have seen few people take the infirmities of age with such grace.


Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

Weil’s story is also a narrative about how immigrant families shaped the South, especially its small towns. One of the ways in which Gertrude Weil was especially fortunate is that she found the encouragement she needed in her own home, where her mother was a supreme example to her four children of a forward-thinking woman. When Gertrude was a college student, she wrote to her family, her Dear Ones, I don’t know what I can do or say in return for all your blessings and good wishes … you, who have always given me so much and been so good.

Historian Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman points out that after southern Jews had established themselves in their homes and temples, Jewish women by the 1890s became active in their communities. Many were willing to call themselves progressives in a state where race riots and labor strikes fueled public fears.¹⁰ In 1913 Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew who had been convicted of the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl, was lynched by an angry mob. Because of this incident—and for other reasons connected with anti-Semitism—some Jewish families in the early part of the twentieth century and again during World War II felt compelled to assume a low profile in their hometowns, not calling attention to themselves at times of extreme public unrest. This was not true of the Weils. Gertrude was the most outspoken family member. Zionist, like socialist, was a term she used to describe herself. She believed that it was easier to be Jewish in the South because the gentile community expect[ed] the Jews to have their own community and to be loyal to it, and respected them because they were civically useful and declare[d] themselves as Jews.¹¹

Gertrude remained an observant Jew all her life. In her letters home from the Horace Mann School and Smith College, she reassured her parents that she had remained faithful in her practices. In New York City, she fasted and then attended a shul with northern relatives, though Gertrude thought there was too much Hebrew. She wrote how much she missed the family’s Pesach (Passover) and lamented, "It seemed queer not to have Sedah (how do you spell it?)."¹² At Smith, which had been founded in 1871 and admitted its first Jewish student in 1896, Gertrude could not fulfill the requirement to attend religious services because there were none available to Jews. Finally, when she got up enough nerve to go see the president about it, he suggested that she simply attend services with Unitarians, which she was not inclined to do.¹³

As an adult living in Goldsboro, Gertrude taught Sunday school at the temple and rearranged her other activities to avoid missing a class or a service. She was invited to speak to Jewish congregations on what Judaism meant to her. Although she often said that women did important work, she accepted the practice that in her congregation, women were not allowed to vote until 1928. The idea of having a woman rabbi apparently had not entered her mind. As a Jew in the mostly Protestant South, she may have experienced anti-Semitism, but if she did, her experiences were kept within the family. She seems to have shared her sister Janet’s remembrance of Goldsboro: I grew up with no prejudice. I went three or four blocks north to my church. My friends went three or four blocks east to theirs.¹⁴

Born December 11, 1879, Gertrude Weil grew up listening to stories of the Civil War from both sides of her family. Her mother had vivid memories of fleeing from their home in Raleigh to escape Sherman’s advancing troops. Two Weil brothers who had recently moved to North Carolina—Gertrude’s father, Henry, and his brother Herman—had fought for the Confederacy. Reconstruction did not leave Weil feeling any ill will toward the Union or toward blacks. But she refused to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). She felt that the war was an event that should be forgotten and that the UDC fed off an unnatural patriotism.¹⁵

Weil family history in America goes back to 1858, when Herman Weil, the sixteen-year-old son of an antiques dealer in Germany, hoping to escape economic hardships and prejudices against Jews in the German states, came to Baltimore, where he had relatives. In a few years his brothers, Henry and Solomon, joined him. They were among the 140,000 German immigrants arriving between 1840 and 1870, some 15,000 of whom settled in Baltimore.¹⁶ Many young men soon went farther south, where Jews were inhabiting small towns throughout eastern North Carolina, perhaps seeing less competition there than in the more populous cities of Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. The three Weil brothers settled in Goldsboro, east of the state capital at Raleigh, and a developing railroad juncture for north-south and east-west trains. They wasted no time in opening a small store. H. Weil & Bros., which became a landmark in town, was always identified by its motto, We Do What We Say. By 1880 their businesses were said to be worth more than one hundred thousand dollars, comparable to what one of the Jewish businesses in Charlotte, a city four times the size of Goldsboro, had achieved.¹⁷ By the turn of the twentieth century, Goldsboro was one of a dozen or more small towns in North Carolina with triple-digit populations; in 1907 the census for Goldsboro counted 188 Jews.¹⁸

In 1875, on the edge of downtown, not far from their department store, Henry and Solomon built nearly identical, handsome Victorian houses side by side and filled them with elegant furnishings that included Brussels carpets that Henry had purchased in New York City. Each house became a center for family and friends as well as religious and community meetings.¹⁹ Each was staffed by a number of black servants.²⁰ The Weil brothers and their wives enjoyed using their fine houses for friends and family, especially for religious observances. Sarah entertained in a grand manner, whereas Mina preferred small dinner parties. Although the houses anchored the best residential neighborhood in Goldsboro, the street was unpaved and lighted with kerosene lamps. Remembering her childhood in later years, Gertrude wondered why the residents didn’t light the lamps themselves and save the lamplighter from having to put up his ladder.²¹

Mina Weil, diminutive in size, was in charge of the household, presiding at the head of the table with her husband on her right. Of her four children, Gertrude was the only one who did not marry. Living at home after her father’s death in 1914, she assumed primary care of her mother when Mina’s health became increasingly frail. Gertrude’s friends, when writing to thank her for another pleasant visit, often included, love to your dear mother.²²

Gertrude had good reason to admire her mother, who believed in educating girls as well as boys. She took a leadership role in the family and in the growing Jewish community in establishing the reform Temple Oheb Shalom (named for the one in Baltimore) and the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society. She was charitable and interested in the lives of Goldsboro’s poorer citizens, sometimes going to their homes to bring aid, an early social worker before there was such a title. She was also interested in public education, and in 1881, ahead of the rest of the state, the Weils led a movement to extend the four-month school year and helped to hire a new schoolmaster who practiced the German method. Henry Weil served on the school board, and when he died, Mina Weil took his place. The Goldsboro Graded School was so demanding and its students so successful that its alumni included a large number of school superintendents, college professors, and public school teachers. Among its students were the Weil children. Gertrude later reflected that her early years in Goldsboro public schools prepared her for the demands of the next stage of her education at the Horace Mann School of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, recommended by Mina’s brother, who had studied at Columbia. In addition to preparing children for vigorous academic work, the Goldsboro Graded School introduced civic responsibility, and the children participated in programs to help the poor.²³

Gertrude’s education at the Horace Mann School—or Teachers College, as she always referred to her preparatory school—continued the pattern of exceptionalism fostered in the Weil family. That in her formative years she was introduced to demanding women teachers established an early pattern of her life: she enjoyed the company of smart women. Letters to and from Gertrude and her friends are filled with terms of endearment, signifying that next to family, women friends were the mainstay of her emotional life.²⁴

At Smith College Gertrude was again challenged intellectually and socially in courses taught by women faculty members, in lectures by distinguished visitors, and in friendships among classmates. With other Smith students she taught free kindergarten classes for some of the poorer children of the town (so sweet and bright, she reported), and went on field trips to Lillian Wald’s Henry Street settlement house in New York City.²⁵ Gertrude lived for a semester in the home of Mary Louise Cable and often met her brother, the writer George Washington Cable. Miss Cable was sympathetic to Gertrude’s need to keep Jewish practices, and she told her about places in Northampton where Jewish services were held. Mr. Cable had started Home Culture Clubs in Northampton, which met in homes to bring people of different classes and educational backgrounds together to discuss ideas. Just as Mina Weil was writing Gertrude to come home so that they could start similar work, Gertrude wrote that she already had an idea for starting a Home Culture Club in Goldsboro, though noting the difficulties: It will be harder to do something like this in a small southern town than in New England.²⁶

Smith College admitted a few black students in 1897, and Gertrude attended classes with two daughters of the African American writer Charles Chesnutt. Perhaps this early personal acquaintance with black women whose age and status were similar to hers made a difference in Gertrude’s racial outlook, which embraced equality. The stark contrast between her friendships with a few black classmates and the violent race riot taking place in Wilmington, North Carolina, must have prompted Gertrude to work toward civil race relations at home.

At Smith College intellectual and social pursuits were not the only means of liberation. Physical activity also became an essential part of Gertrude’s life, at a time when women were regarded as too delicate for strenuous exercise. One of her teachers at Horace Mann was the widowed daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Stanton Lawrence, who taught physical education and lived with her mother. In one of her letters home—Gertrude wrote three times a week—she enthusiastically described her ten-mile bike ride with her gym teacher.²⁷

Because visiting relatives and friends sometimes took Gertrude out to dinner, she was not completely on her own. She so thrived under the influence of her teachers and friends that as she approached graduation, she asked her mother if she could look for a job in the North. Mina wrote back that she had plans for her. If she wanted to teach, there were plenty of children in Goldsboro who needed her. She could work in the family store; she could teach embroidery. Having expressed no ambitions for herself other than that she might wish to stay in the North and become a kindergarten teacher, Gertrude returned to Goldsboro. Her sense of filial duty must have felt more urgent than her desire to pursue the other choices. After her father’s death and her mother’s poor health and years of dependency, she found reasons to believe she had made the right decision. How Gertrude negotiated those difficult years when she lost the freedom she had enjoyed in college and had to find her own way again in a close-knit family of strong personalities is unclear.

Goldsboro, however, had continued to hold an attraction for Gertrude during her sojourn in the North. As a college student, Gertrude had written to her niece back home, You needn’t be jealous of New York. I’m coming to Goldsboro as soon as I can—by the very first train that starts after school stops. Then won’t we have a good time.²⁸ Perhaps that was as simple a statement about the pull of home as one can find.

So Gertrude came home, the first North Carolina woman to graduate from Smith College (her sister Janet followed in her footsteps), and she set about seeking to change North Carolinians in the ways she had been changed: better educated, more sensitive to the less fortunate, and in league with women. Like a majority of the graduates of the Seven Sisters colleges at the time, Gertrude remained single, which left her free to pursue her own interests and remain close to her college and to her Goldsboro friends.

A remarkable women’s culture was already taking root in Goldsboro. In 1898 the Ladies Benevolent Society of Goldsboro, the interfaith successor to the Hebrew Benevolent Society established by Sarah Weil, had invited Charlotte Perkins Gilman to give four lectures about the changing lives of women, drawing on her recently published book Women and Economics. In honor of Gilman, Mina Weil, a friend of Sallie Southall Cotten, organized the Goldsboro Woman’s Club, one of the first, largest, and most successful in Cotten’s North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs. Mina Weil reported that during Gilman’s visit to Goldsboro, husbands stood on the street corner and worriedly speculated about what this advocate for women’s economic freedom might mean, warning, They’ll be wanting the vote next and that will be too dreadful.²⁹

Locals had another two decades to wait in dread, but meanwhile, they might have paid more attention to the activities of the Weil sisters-in-law. In 1913 Sarah Weil invited the liberal North Carolina judge Walter Clark to talk to Goldsboro women about the rights of workers. Mina from Wilson, North Carolina, and Sarah from Boston, Massachusetts, represented in their backgrounds a classic case of North meets South. Gertrude, with the same background as her mother, but like Sarah, educated in the East, was not like either, as they discovered when she began traveling to meetings, which they thought took her away from home too often.³⁰ Mina and Sarah shared Gertrude’s strong belief: As women our responsibilities are especially for women.³¹ In the decade after graduating from Smith and adjusting her life to some of her mother’s interests, Gertrude participated fully in the Federated Club movement. Locally and statewide, she attended so many meetings and held so many offices that she was affectionately called Federation Gertie, a tag applied by her lifelong Goldsboro friend Sally Kirby. In 1912 Sallie Southall Cotten in one of her letters applauded Gertrude’s election to her first statewide office in the Federation, congratulating her on being elected recording secretary and inviting her to her home in eastern North Carolina to spend a week and talk over everything.³² Women’s work was fun, sometimes. Gertrude became a mentor to younger women in the Federated Club movement, especially Gladys Tillett of Charlotte, who followed her into the suffrage campaign and the League of Women Voters (LWV).³³

In 1914 Weil was urged to accept the presidency of the state Federation, but she declined because she had another, more pressing opportunity. She founded the Goldsboro Equal Suffrage League and the next year assumed the vice-presidency of the North Carolina Suffrage League, poised to push for suffrage after what Adelaide Daniels, a suffragist leader, called a century of earnest endeavor.³⁴ (In 1897, when suffrage was first introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly, it was assigned to the committee on insane asylums—perhaps an instance that put Gertrude’s sense of humor to the test. It was going to be a long battle.)

The campaign to pass the Nineteenth Amendment captured Gertrude’s passion and may have been one of the reasons that kept her in North Carolina. Yet she was unable to persuade either her mother or her Aunt Sarah to join the movement. Mina and Sarah did not identify themselves as suffragists, but Gertrude stood front and center in the fight—and it was a fight. Perhaps nothing could have prepared North Carolina’s women for the opposition that was coming, often from women themselves. By 1920, when suffrage was discussed in the state legislature, Gertrude was forty-one years old and had met many different women. She did not expect them all to think alike. She knew human nature too well. She and her allies shared feminist, even radical views including woman suffrage, but she knew they were outnumbered. Nevertheless, she believed in reasonable approaches to what seemed so clearly the right thing to do.

The first hard test of her leadership role was to organize the Goldsboro Equal Suffrage League in 1914 and to serve as its first president. Successful in this endeavor, she then served two terms as president of the state Suffrage League. This was where she had been headed all along. When I came home [from Smith College], she was to remember, I wondered why people made speeches in favor of something so obviously right. Women breathed the same air, got the same education; it was ridiculous, spending so much energy and elocution on something rightfully theirs.³⁵ After setting up an office in Raleigh, she traveled the state, getting signatures on petitions and lobbying for support. She was a general, urging her troops on, asking them to put their shoulders to the wheel and make one strong final effort to secure ratification. … Think Ratification, Talk Ratification, Work Ratification.³⁶

Opposition to the woman vote was deep and passionate in the southern states. By 1920 thirty-five states had passed the amendment, and the vote moved to North Carolina, which stood to become the requisite thirty-sixth state for adding the amendment to the Constitution. Gertrude and her cohorts fervently hoped that North Carolina would vote yes. Pride was on the line in the state. But women were on both sides of the question, and as soon as the legislature threatened to act on suffrage, the antisuffragists took notice and began to organize. Opposition to suffrage among women was strong in North Carolina, driven by racist fears about enfranchising blacks and by opposition to federal intervention in state affairs. Although the opponents started late in the campaign, they quickly made up time. The state was conservative; power was in the hands of business, and the leadership of the anti-amendment forces included women like Mary Hilliard Hinton, who came from a family of planters in Wake County. Hinton chaired the Southern League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and set up headquarters in Raleigh near the Equal Suffrage League.

The two campaigns traded barbs. The rejectionist’s motto was, Politics are bad for women and women are bad for politics. The suffragists were less timid: Raise fewer dahlias and a lot more hell, urged Louise Alexander in Greensboro. Some supporters admitted that the greatest obstacle to passage was the apathy or downright opposition of many women. But perhaps the wisest observation came from Kentucky’s Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, who observed that her North Carolina sisters seemed to think they could get the vote without anyone realizing they wanted it.³⁷ Even the state Federated Clubs were late in endorsing suffrage. At the same time, younger women at the State Normal School in Greensboro ignored a speaker when he doubted that they wanted the vote and cheered national suffrage leader Anna Howard Shaw.³⁸ Perhaps there was hope for the future.

In July 1920 Gertrude wrote to Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the national suffrage campaign, describing the difficult situation in North Carolina. As she waited for her suffrage compatriot Cornelia Jerman to return from the Democratic National Convention to give her renewed energy, she tried to craft a strategy. Support for suffrage was drying up as candidates for election to the state assembly changed their position when they met with public hostility, especially in the eastern part of the state. Weil explained to Catt that North Carolina suffragists felt it necessary to abandon public meetings on the issue until after the primary because a straw vote in one county had been negative. The Equal Suffrage League was afraid that it would happen in other places and that elected public officials would insist on following the wishes of their constituents. Moreover, support from Governor Thomas Bickett was soft, and he hoped that Tennessee would ratify

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