Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Cornelia Petty Jerman, 1874-1946
By Alia Kempton, Research and Instructional Services Graduate Assistant, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Leader of the North Carolina Woman Suffrage Movement and Democratic party official.
Cornelia Petty was born in Moore County near Carthage, North Carolina to William Cary Petty and Emma Virginia Thagard Petty in 1874. She attended Oxford Female College in Oxford, N.C. and graduated in 1892. Jerman had a talent for singing and moved to Boston, MA where she studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music, where her instructors urged her to pursue a career in opera singing. Upon her return to N.C. in 1898 she married banker and businessman Thomas Palmer Jerman of Raleigh. They had one son, Thomas Palmer Jerman, Jr. (1906-1974) and a daughter Lucy, who died in childhood.
Once in Raleigh, Jerman became an integral member of the city's vibrant social life. As Jerman's participation and membership in social circles increased, her involvement turned political, advocating for women's rights and the suffrage movement. She soon became a charter member of the Women's Club of Raleigh, eventually serving as president from 1909 to 1911. During this appointment she oversaw the design and construction of the club's first and second buildings.
Jerman served as president, chaired, and organized many leagues throughout the city of Raleigh and represented North Carolina in broader political contexts on a national scale. In 1915 she was elected Second Vice President of the Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina and also served on the association's Legislative Committee. She served as president of the North Carolina Suffrage League as well as the North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs. She helped organize the Raleigh Equal Suffrage League and was elected president of the organization in 1919. She lobbied the General Assembly extensively for women's right to vote as well as other issues pertaining to the equitable treatment of women during her time. After suffrage was passed in 1920 Jerman knew her life work must continue and she helped organize the Raleigh League of Women Voters, an organization that she would come to serve as president of from 1921-1923.
Jerman became a leader in the North Carolina woman suffrage movement and Democratic party official. In 1920, 1924, and 1928 Jerman was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She led movements to advance constructive legislation in the fields of health, education, labor, and corrective institutions. She lobbied and actively campaigned for Al Smith in 1928 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
In 1934, the Roosevelt administration appointed Jerman to the federal post of assistant collector of Internal Revenue for North Carolina. This appointment required her resignation from the Democratic National Committee and her relocation to Greensboro, N.C. where she remained until 1939, when she resigned and returned to Raleigh. June 1943 brought Jerman an honorary law degree from Women's College at Greensboro. Beyond her political appointments, Jerman served as director of the Wake County Savings Bank until its merger with the First Citizen's Band and Trust Company. She was also director of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad. Additionally, Jerman was a member of several clubs including the Fortnightly Review Club, the St. Cecilia Music Club, and the Women's National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.
Jerman was widowed in 1911 and died in Raleigh on February 3, 1946. Her remains were buried at Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. Jerman was and continues to be an inspiration, mentor and role model known for her powerful, revolutionary leadership and success in pushing for the advancement of women's rights and full citizenship. As a vocal advocate of woman's rights, Jerman earned her reputation as an influential and formidable fighter on the front line of the suffrage movement. She gained this respect among both women and men, and particularly with men politicians. Jerman found strength and determination in the face of voting opposition and discrimination based on gender and used this to fuel her drive to enact deep social and political change. She saw that for women the act of voting was and always would be a meaningful catalyst for transformation. Perhaps more importantly, Jerman recognized that women gaining traction through active political participation and membership in parties and factions would affect even more significant and lasting change from the inside. Her campaigns for solidarity, resilience, and perseverance in the face of constant and growing opposition demonstrates her enduring and strong commitment to women's causes while embodying the infinite and tremendous possibilities of the human spirit.
Abernethy, Max. "Big Battle on Over Suffrage." Fayetteville Observer. June 19, 1920.
Cornelia Petty Jerman Papers (#155), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA.
Documenting the American South. "Sallie Southall Cotten. History of the North Carolina Federation of Women's Clubs 1901 - 1925." Accessed June 23, 2021. https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/cottenss/cottenss.html.
League of Women Voters of Wake County. "Our History - League of Women Voters of Wake County." Accessed June 24, 2021. https://www.lwvwake.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=289772&module_id=473005.
Lennon, Donald R. "Jerman, Cornelia Petty." NCPedia, January 1, 1988. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/jerman-cornelia.
NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. "Clubwoman and Suffrage Leader Cornelia Jerman." Accessed June 23, 2021. https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2015/02/04/clubwoman-and-suffrage-leader-cornelia-jerman.
NCGenWeb. "JERMAN, Cornelia Petty (d. 1946)." Accessed June 23, 2021. http://ncgenweb.us/wake/jerman-cornelia-petty-d-1946/.
Sims, Anastatia. The Power of Femininity in the New South: Women's Organizations and Politics in North Carolina, 1880-1930. University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Wikipedia. "Cornelia Petty Jerman." Last modified July 29, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cornelia_Petty_Jerman&oldid=970086723.
Wilkerson-Freeman, Sarah. "From Clubs to Parties: North Carolina Women in the Advancement of the New Deal." The North Carolina Historical Review 68, no. 3 (1991): 320-39.