Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South

Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South

Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South

Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South


It is so obvious that to treat people equally is the right thing to do," wrote Gertrude Weil (1879-1971). In the first-ever biography of Weil, Leonard Rogoff tells the story of a modest southern Jewish woman who, while famously private, fought publicly and passionately for the progressive causes of her age. Born to a prominent family in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Weil never married and there remained ensconced--in many ways a proper southern lady--for nearly a century. From her hometown, she fought for women's suffrage, founded her state's League of Women Voters, pushed for labor reform and social welfare, and advocated for world peace.

Weil made national headlines during an election in 1922 when, casting her vote, she spotted and ripped up a stack of illegally marked ballots. She campaigned against lynching, convened a biracial council in her home, and in her eighties desegregated a swimming pool by diving in headfirst. Rogoff also highlights Weil's place in the broader Jewish American experience. Whether attempting to promote the causes of southern Jewry, save her European family members from the Holocaust, or support the creation of a Jewish state, Weil fought for systemic change, all the while insisting that she had not done much beyond the ordinary duty of any citizen.


Gertrude Weil had a “lovely time” as she led her African American neighbors into a segregated hotel. Her invitation to the political reception had asked her to bring her friends. Now in her eighties, she had enjoyed a long career defying convention. As always, Miss Gertrude was perfectly poised even as her clear blue eyes glimmered with mischief. a southern lady, she was raised to be modest and courteous. a New Woman, she thought progressively and acted courageously. a cosmopolitan Jew, daughter of an immigrant, she had learned to fit into a society that was Christian and traditional. Negotiating complexities within herself, Gertrude would change the world.

Although rooted to her native Goldsboro, North Carolina, Gertrude represented a generation of educated women who advocated for women’s rights, social welfare, and world peace. Among them, too, were Jewish women newly risen to the middle class and politically emancipated. Broadly read and deeply thinking, Gertrude felt she was acting according to her own standard of justice. the first North Carolinian to graduate from Smith College, she returned to Goldsboro, where as “Federation Gertie” she joined a Women’s Club movement that transformed communities, pulling women from the hearth into the civic marketplace. After leading the state’s woman suffrage campaign, she founded its League of Women Voters. Intent on reform, she fought relentlessly for labor rights, economic justice, and social welfare. When civil rights for African Americans could no longer be denied, she committed to the cause with an energy that belied her years. Beyond her borders, she campaigned tirelessly for world peace. She saved her German family from the Holocaust and, an ardent Zionist, worked to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.

Though her life was momentous, Gertrude Weil would not have wanted this book written. She would have dismissed her biographer as a “damn fool.” the eminent women’s historian Anne Firor Scott, who knew her well, felt differently: “Gertrude Weil deserves a full-scale biography, and when one is accomplished perhaps many complexities and mysteries of her life will be illuminated.” Scott was charmed by her character and awed by her achievements. That she still found mysteries to be unraveled is revealing since in books like The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 Scott has done more than anyone to cast light on women of Gertrude’s time and place.

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