Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South

University of North Carolina Press  2017


Leonard Rogoff exploits a treasure trove of documentation. Gertrude Weil, her family, and their friends were all dedicated letter writers: when Gertrude went away to school (Horace Mann, followed by Smith College), she was instructed to write her mother three times a week, and there was a rota of relatives who must also receive missives. No excuse was acceptable; since family was the most important value for Gertrude’s mother, studying for a test or finishing a paper simply didn’t cut it. Weil’s political activism was later channeled into letters: letters to relatives, letters to Jewish friends, letters to members of the wider community inside and outside of North Carolina. The result is an enormously rich corpus for Rogoff to mine.

Inevitably Rogoff is the prisoner of his sources. They tell much about how one initiative led to another. Early efforts at progressive social reform left Weil believing that only if women had the vote could they make reform a reality. For her and her close associates, suffrage was not a good in itself; the benefit was instrumental. Facing disillusion when many newly enfranchised women joined their husbands in voting against reform, progressivism took new forms in the 1930s and 1940s; Rogoff steps carefully around Weil’s flirtation with eugenics.

Rogoff builds Weil’s life around three poles: progressivism, women’s suffrage, and Classical Reform Judaism. The letters enable Rogoff to trace, in almost tedious detail, the building of networks for specific goals. With regard to suffrage, family networks gave way to state organizations, including one for Jewish women and one including Christians, while all were linked to national organizations. This pattern was replicated for social reform.

Rogoff does a fine job of describing Weil’s musings, study, and credo within the context of Reform Judaism. The historian will miss treatment of the influx of East European Jews, Conservative in their denominational allegiance, who brought new energy to cities such as Greensboro and Charlotte.

It is easy to explain social change in North Carolina as based on Christian Evangelicism. What Rogoff does, very convincingly, is to demonstrate that Judaism, as exemplified by leaders like Gertrude Weil, was a crucial element in the mix. All three poles of Weil’s life contributed to this outcome. Jewish ethics, the imperative to activism based on those ethics, and the existence of family and community networks as the vehicle and model for mobilization made for a powerful combination. We stand in Rogoff’s debt for his painstaking and superbly documented exploration and assessment of the place of Classical Reform Judaism, through figures like Gertrude Weil, in North Carolina history.

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