Cora Weiss: A Life in Full

A quest for peace, justice, and women in power
Cora Weiss

“Life is one big story,” Cora Weiss said late last month, over salami sandwiches and sparkling water at her home in East Hampton before boarding a late afternoon Jitney back to the city. At 81, her life story has a great many chapters.

If Ms. Weiss were ever to write a book, she would call it “It Takes More Than Ovaries.” She believes that the more “peace and justice-loving” women hold elected office, the more equitable and safe society will be.

Ms. Weiss has spent the last several months getting her affairs in order — meticulously organizing, along with a researcher, the voluminous photographs and newspaper clippings that together tell the story. “All the things I’m doing today, have their launching stories in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Ms. Weiss, who speaks slowly and deliberately.

Long before Sheryl Sandberg, now the chief operating officer of Facebook, Ms. Weiss was in an original “Lean In” generation, figuring out how to combine her roles as a wife and mother of three young children with her work as a peace activist and human rights crusader. “There are so many wonderful women in our history,” Ms. Weiss said. “I have had many shoulders to stand on.”

Ms. Weiss was born at what was formerly the Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, after her mother discovered that it had the lowest infant mortality rate in all of New York City. She grew up in Westchester County, in what she described as a “politically interesting family.” Her mother, Vera Rubin, volunteered for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, driving through Republican-controlled White Plains to help get out the vote. “I’m not sure how many women were even driving cars then,” she said.

Meanwhile, her father, Samuel Rubin, put advertisements in a local newspaper, urging readers to buy war bonds. Mr. Rubin was a businessman who commuted into Manhattan each day. He established Fabergé, a cosmetics and perfume company, which he later sold to Unilever, and he was the owner of the property in Amagansett now known as Quail Hill.

A perpetual high achiever, Ms. Weiss won several spelling bee contests, drawing the ire of her early peers. As a Jewish family living in a predominantly Catholic and Protestant community, Ms. Weiss said she and her brother stood out, learning about anti-Semitism when their elementary school classmatesthrew stones at them during their walks to school.

After graduating from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied anthropology. It was during the height of McCarthyism, and she cut her teeth in politics at the time, working on the “Joe Must Go” campaign, which aimed to recall Joseph McCarthy’s Senate seat. Ms. Weiss crisscrossed the state, her car with New York State license plates frequently pelted with potatoes and cornhusks. “It was my first lesson in local organizing,” she said with a knowing nod. “When you’re in Wisconsin, use Wisconsin plates.”

“Wisconsin was the nurturing place, the germinating place,” Ms. Weiss said. Soon after, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s Law School. “Possibly there were one or two other women, but for some reason I was the one being called on the entire time in an effort to prove that women couldn’t be lawyers.”

During college, Ms. Weiss ran a summer camp, teaching children to swim at nearby freshwater lakes, which were often segregated by race and class, with white children more likely to learn to swim than their oftentimes poorer, black counterparts. Looking back, it was her first civil rights activity. “It consisted of me and a car full of kids,” she recalled. The kids used to take turns riding on her back, she said, and she has suffered from back troubles ever since, having to take her law finals standing up.

As an undergraduate, she met Peter Weiss, a graduate of Yale Law School, who ran the International Development Placement Association, a predecessor to the Peace Corps. The couple married in 1956, when she was 21. “I got a B.A. and a Mrs.,” Ms. Weiss said, and dropped out of law school shortly thereafter. “Women lawyers didn’t marry men lawyers, with the exception of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I had to decide who I was and what I was going to do.”

After starting and stopping coursework in public health and social work, Ms. Weiss turned her attention to issues overseas, her husband having become president of the American Committee on Africa. Now 90, Mr. Weiss is an international trademark and human rights lawyer who believes in abolishing nuclear weapons and torture. He remains hopeful that peace in the Middle East will occur during his lifetime.

From 1959 to 1963, Ms. Weiss was the executive director of the African-American Students Foundation, helping to bring nearly 800 students here as part of the “African airlift,” believing it was the moral obligation of this country to provide educational opportunities to African youth following generations of colonial rule. Many of the students who participated in the airlift later returned to East Africa and became democratic nation builders, she said. “They built the nation of Kenya. It’s amazing what the program produced.”

In 1961, Ms. Weiss joined Women Strike for Peace, alarmed at the proliferation of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. “We learned everything there was to know about strontium-90, which was the killer chemical in nuclear bombs — and we went around the country teaching newspaper editors how to spell strontium-90 and what it was all about,” she said.

Two years later she and a group of activists, many of whom also were young mothers, stood at the White House gates, as President John F. Kennedy signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady, took coffee and doughnuts to the women gathered outside. She continued her anti-nuclear and anti-war activism, beginning first with her work to end the Vietnam War and her later involvement in the Irish peace process — seeking a shared space for Catholic and Protestant women to arrive at an eventual compromise.

In 2000, she was among a handful of women who drafted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Unanimously adopted, it called for the prevention of violent conflict, the participation of women at all levels of governing, and the protection of women and girls during armed conflict. In addition to three Nobel Peace Prize nominations, Ms. Weiss continues to serve as president of Hague Appeal for Peace, a Manhattan-based nonprofit organization dedicated to education and the abolition of war.

Since the early 1950s, Ms. Weiss has frequented the South Fork, first at her parents’ house in Amagansett. After her parents divorced, her mother built an upside-down, prefabricated house on a  piece of land in Bridgehampton overlooking Swan’s Creek.  For decades, it was the family’s primary gathering place — with authors spending time there to write books, filmmakers using it to make documentaries, and U.N. diplomats in search of rest and relaxation. She and her husband became known for large gatherings there of such visitors and friends.

More than 20 years ago, Ms. Weiss became friends with Alison Bernstein. They frequently spent time together in East Hampton, where each had a weekend house. Ms. Bernstein had directed Rutgers University’s Institute for Women’s Leadership, and in recent years the women, along with more than a dozen others, spearheaded the creation of an endowed chair at Rutgers named for Gloria Steinem, the first of its kind in the nation. So far, the group has raised $2 million of a required $3 million. In late June, Ms. Bernstein died of cancer at the age of 69.

In 2008, Ms. Weiss and her husband were looking to downsize, eventually moving to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a development in the Georgica area of East Hampton. It overlooks a meadow where deer, wild turkeys, and red foxes are often seen. Before they sold the Bridgehampton house, the family held a tag sale, whose proceeds established a travel fund overseen by the parent-teacher association of the Bridgehampton School.

The couple is in East Hampton most weekends, continuing to entertain at Sunday brunch. In the quieter months, Ms. Weiss loves nothing more than seeing the live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera at Guild Hall. “For $20, you can sit up front and feel like you’re right on stage,” she said.

Ms. Weiss turns 82 on Oct. 2 — a birthday she shares with Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian nonviolent leader who led his nation to independence. When she looks to the future, she thinks mostly about her five grandchildren and the world they will inherit.

In the fall of 2008, Philippe Cheng, a Bridgehampton-based photographer, featured Ms. Weiss, along with hundreds of other East End women, in a documentary titled “On the Cusp,” about the 10 days leading up to the Nov. 4 election of President Barack Obama.

A longtime supporter of President Obama and more recently of Senator Bernie Sanders, she has now aligned herself with Hillary Clinton, albeit with some reluctance. Come November, Ms. Weiss is hopeful that Mrs. Clinton will become the first woman president. “We’ve never faced such a danger,” Ms. Weiss said, when talk turned to Donald Trump. She was unequivocal in saying that former supporters of Mr. Sanders must not only vote, but ensure that others get to the polls.

“I feel strongly that Clinton must be elected. I supported Bernie. But now, it’s time to think about ‘the Supremes,’ ” she wrote in a follow-up email, referring to the Supreme Court justices likely to be appointed in the next four years. “The future is at stake.”

“One day, we will have a feminist, peace and justice-loving president,” Ms. Weiss added, believing that change has to start somewhere, with more progressive presidential candidates likely to follow in Mrs. Clinton’s historic coattails.