ColumnsThe Suffragist

Gertrude Weil and Today’s North Carolina Women

Gertrude Weil is credited with bringing the fight for women’s suffrage to North Carolina. The Goldsboro native came by activism naturally as many other people in her life, including her mother, were already active in various women’s organization. At age 16, she left for prep school in New York City in 1895, and from there wrote home, “Oh! You’ll see me come home a thorough reformer.” And that’s exactly what she did.

Gertrude Weil circa 1896 (N.C. State Archives)

In 1913 she helped women in Charlotte — namely Julia Alexander, the Queen City’s first female attorney (the second in the state) — organize the first suffrage meeting here. Even after the N.C. General Assembly (NCGA) failed to ratify the 19th Amendment six years later, Weil did not lose hope, but instead called on women “to hold together whatever organization you have. We shall need it to carry out the work that lies before us.” Her response to the NCGA’s inaction was to form the North Carolina League of Women Voters.

For more than 70 years, Ms. Weil fought not only for women’s suffrage but also for labor reform, civil rights and so much more. — even sending money to help Holocaust victims in Germany in the 1940s. In 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when Weil was hosting meetings with movement’s leaders in her home, she was quoted by the Goldsboro News-Argus as saying, “It is so obvious that to treat people equally is the right thing to do.”

It wasn’t until 1971, when Weil was on her deathbed, that the NCGA ratified the 19th Amendment, though by then it didn’t matter.

Today, the fight for our rights continues with similar zeal. Look no further than neighboring Virginia and recent news that their state legislature may soon ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — which could make it the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution … maybe. The intent of the ERA is to provide equal rights, regardless of sex, to all U.S. citizens.

According to Bloomberg News: “When the 1979 deadline passed, only 35 of the 38 states needed had voted to ratify the amendment, but votes by Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018 brought the count to 37. The Virginia General Assembly, with a newly elected Democratic majority, is expected to become the 38th legislature to approve the ERA soon after its session convenes Jan. 8.” On Jan. 15th, they did just that.

While there is an effort in Congress to extend the ERA’s ratification deadline, attorney generals from Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota filed suit in federal court last month in an effort to nullify any hope of the ERA’s ratification.

And yet, women — and men — continue their fight in Washington D.C. and right here in North Carolina. In March 2019, N.C. Sen. Joyce Waddell of Charlotte co-sponsored SB 184 offering our state another chance to be the deciding vote for federal equal rights for women. The bill has been stuck in committee since. That was the fifth year in a row that ERA bills have been introduced in the NCGA, yet the bills never come up for a vote in either legislative chamber.

Suffragists including Gertrude Weil (far left), Mary Borden Graham (center) and Rowena Borden (far right) circa 1920. (General Negative Collection, N.C. State Archives)

Women still have plenty of poll power. “Overall … women are 53% of the registered voters in the state, and typically are that same percentage when it comes to casting ballots in general elections,” political analyst Dr. Michael Bitzer explained on his Old North State Politics blog. “Generationally, 31% of female voters in North Carolina are under the age of 37 (26% are millennials, with 5% Gen Z).”

Women are paying attention with good reason. According to the N.C. Department of Administration’s 2019 report entitled “The Status of Women in North Carolina,” among other major issues on the minds of female voters, North Carolina received a D grade on the Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s health and well-being index.” According to the report, 35% of North Carolina women have experienced intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence. Also, women in North Carolina earn a median income of $36,400, and an average of $8,600 less than men.”

Still, an op-ed in The Charlotte Observer following the 2018 mid-term election declared, “The Year of the Woman? Not in NC Politics.” The author, David McClennan, noted that while there has been a surge in female candidates in other states, North Carolina “is not experiencing a surge in women candidates to the same degree as many states. The total number of women running for all offices in the state has declined from 2014 and 2016.”

In Charlotte, five of 12 city councilmembers are female, and the Mecklenburg Commission has a majority of women policymakers — six of nine are women, including vice-chair Elaine Powell, elected in 2018. The fight is long from over for women in this state, but I can’t help but imagine Miss Gertrude smiling upon us all as we help each other carry the mantle she first brought to the state in the early 1900s.

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