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  • Gertrude Weil and Her Times
  • Anne Firor Scott (bio)

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Figure 1.

"I grow more radical every year," Gertrude Weil (here) once said. "Who knows? I may live long enough to become a communist!" All photographs from the Gertrude Weil Papers in the N.C. Office of Archives and History.

[End Page 87]

North Carolina has been home to many remarkable women, and in this galaxy the name Gertrude Weil shines bright. Born in 1879 into a family that was virtually synonymous with the history of Goldsboro, North Carolina, forty years later she was one of the best-known women in the state. The first North Carolina graduate of Smith College, she returned to Goldsboro after graduation. Step by step, using voluntary associations such as the woman's club, the suffrage movement, the League of Women Voters, and the Council of Jewish Women, she gradually became an effective political leader. Intelligent, modest, diplomatic, witty, realistic, effective—all of these overworked adjectives describe her.

I met "Miss Weil," as I called her then, in 1963, when she was eighty-four. I had come to ask her about the political activities of North Carolina women in the first half of the twentieth century. My chief memory of that meeting is of her lively interest in the research I was doing and her trenchant answers to my questions. She did not pussyfoot: one of the early leaders whom she and I both admired was married, she told me, to a "very ordinary" man who did not much support his wife's work in the public interest but "liked to go the beach and watch the girls."

Nor did she exaggerate the work she and a small handful of her contemporaries had accomplished. I was full of the excitement of discovering such women, but she urged me to be realistic. Women, she said, were not always selfless in their political activities; most North Carolina women had not been the least bit feminist and certainly most were not radical. Then she went on to give thumbnail sketches of those who were feminist and radical (her friends) and to suggest some of their accomplishments. She only talked about herself in response to a direct question.

It was, all in all, a wonderful day. We met in the house her father had built, in which she had been born. Generations of books lined the walls: clearly, theirs was a reading family. Papers spilled out of drawers and shelves. Nothing of any value, she assured me. (Whether from guile or modesty, who can say?) These papers now fill one hundred boxes in the North Carolina Office of Archives and History and challenge the historian in a dozen ways.

That day began a friendship that lasted until her death in 1971. As I read the early records of the North Carolina League of Women Voters and talked about her with other survivors of the early days of North Carolina feminism, my admiration grew. Her remarkable spirit emerged in every encounter on paper or in person. Once in the late sixties she came to Chapel Hill to consult my husband about the state of the world—she thought it was pretty bad but she wanted to know what the experts were saying. They discussed depressing international problems at length. Gertrude was irrepressible. "I grow more radical every year," she told him. "Who knows? I may live long enough to become a communist!" A year before her death, she was still laughing, this time about how hard it was to read a book when she couldn't remember the page she had just read. In all my life, I have seen few people take the infirmities of age with such grace. [End Page 88]

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Figure 2.

Two months after General Sherman left Goldsboro, the Weil brothers, the older only twenty-three, opened a general merchandise store. From that day the business history of Goldsboro is almost the history of the Weil family.

Gertrude Weil's life exemplifies a number of the social changes and political developments of her time. She lived through half our history as a nation...


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