When the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution gave women the right to vote in 1920, it was without the help of North Carolina legislators.
The women's suffrage amendment, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, had been ratified by 35 of the necessary 36 states when 63 of the 120 North Carolina House members signed a telegram sent to the Tennessee legislature urging them to vote NO.
We, the undersigned members of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of North Carolina, constituting a majority of said body, send greetings to the General Assembly of Tennessee, and assure you that we will not ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, interfering with the sovereignty of Tennessee and other States of the Union. We most respectfully request that this measure be not forced upon the people of North Carolina.
Two days later, Tennessee did ratify the amendment, and women's right to vote became law. The North Carolina House went on to reject the amendment, but the Senate tabled their vote. And there it sat for the next fifty years.
Goldsboro's Gertrude Weil had been in the forefront of the suffragette movement and was undeterred by the struggle.
Her father had arrived in Goldsboro from Germany shortly after the Civil War. She was born in 1879 in the West Chestnut Street house her father had built and where she would live her entire life.
Her parents infused her with a sense of social responsibility that was strengthened by her education at Horace Mann, an exclusive prep school in New York City, and Smith College in Northampton, Mass. In 1901, Miss Weil became the first North Carolina graduate of Smith.
In college, Miss Weil read John Stewart Mill, Henry George, Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels.
Her philosophy blended a critique of capitalism with the Progressivism of muckraking journalists and labor leaders.
In 1914, she played a vital role in establishing the North Carolina Equal Suffrage League and was president of the organization from 1919 to 1920. She later founded the North Carolina League of Women Voters and went on to fight for a study of the harsh labor conditions in North Carolina factories. Her efforts continued through bloody strikes at factories in Marion and Gastonia in 1928.
"I have never understood," she said, "why we have to work so hard for things that seem so obvious. Why should you have to get up and make speeches to treat people right?"
She believed that racism and poverty had deep roots. It was the job of an activist not only to help solve individual injustices, but to attack the roots of social ills. -- The News & Observer 3/16/1984
In 1965, N&O writer Betsy Marsh interviewed Miss Weil about the many awards and honors she had received and found her characteristically modest.
Back in the early years of the 1900s Miss Weil became active in efforts to get the vote for women. She has been credited with initiating the suffrage movement in North Carolina, but she insists she was only a small part of it.
"Please make it clear that I didn't start all the organizations I've been credited with," she said.
"The North Carolina Suffrage League was organized in 1916 or thereabout by Mrs. Archibald Henderson in Chapel Hill," she recalls.
Miss Gertrude worked at it with such enthusiasm that she was elected president of the state organization -- serving in 1920, the year that the North Carolina General Assembly considered -- and failed to ratify -- the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution.
When the legislature met in special session that year, Miss Weil and her suffragettes went to Raleigh to plead their cause. "I guess I never was a politician," she confides. "I never could tell after I talked with a lawmaker whether he was for us or against us." Apparently they were against them.
The legislature failed to ratify the amendment, and the opportunity for North Carolina to make suffrage for women the law of the land slipped by. "Only one more state was needed to make it law," said Miss Weil. "The honor went to Tennessee." -- The News & Observer 3/14/1965
North Carolina finally did ratify the amendment on May 6, 1971, just 24 days before Miss Weil's death at age 91.
See more photos and writings of Gertrude Weil at the Jewish Women's Archive.