“Find something where you lose yourself”: Carolyn Newton Curry’s Vindication of the Rights of Women
Last Saturday, Carolyn Newton Curry, founder of Women Alone Together and author of Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas 1834-1907, welcomed me into her lovely home for an interview.
After wandering lost in their building for a few moments, I finally arrived at their door. Carolyn invited me inside, and her husband, Bill, who has also republished a book with us (Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle), asked to take my coat. I felt as though I was being greeted as an old friend arriving the hundredth time for coffee and nice conversation. In her office, we sat surrounded by bookshelves, and outside the window, Downtown’s skyscrapers rose above Atlanta’s vast autumnal forest. We settled ourselves into the bright room, I gathered my thoughts, and we spoke for a little over an hour.
Elizabeth (E): Do you see reflections of yourself in Gertrude in any way?
Carolyn (C): Absolutely. I think one reason I enjoyed [writing] the book so much is because Gertrude was a strong woman. She loved to read and loved to write, and I love to read and write. She loved to examine things and not just accept what people told her. She grew up in a slave-holding society, and everyone said slavery was condoned by the Bible. But she began to question it and say, “I don’t know if this is moral.” And by the time the Civil War was over, she was glad the slaves were free. [Gertrude] also began to question the position of women and thought there was a double standard where men and women were concerned. She was able to think for herself and say, “I don’t think that’s right.” I admire that about her, and I try to do the same in my own life.
E: In your opinion, what do you think are the biggest differences and similarities between Gertrude and the fictional Scarlett O’Hara?
C: Pat Conroy made a reference to Scarlett O’Hara on the back of the book, which thrilled me to death. When I speak [at events], they ask me to compare [Ella Gertrude] to Scarlett, and I say, “There was a lot similar to Scarlett, but Ella Gertrude had a conscience.” You know, Scarlett would just do anything to survive. But Ella Gertrude wanted to do the right thing.
One of my pet peeves about history and writing history is that historians want to put everything in there. You should make it interesting; you should write it like a novel. Readers aren’t going to want to read every minute detail.
E: Gertrude’s perspectives change as she grows older and experiences marriage, childbirth, death, war, poverty, etc. Do you feel women face the same drastic paradigm shifts today? How do women’s experiences shape who they are?
C: I’ve often told young women: yes, we do have disappointments in life, but we don’t have death the way women did in the 19th century. So many women died in childbirth, or their baby died in childbirth.
Most of the time now, when women are pregnant, they are excited about their babies. You seldom hear about the mother or baby dying. But when you read this book, you realize how prevalent the suffering was for women in childbirth and you realize the fear of women dying themselves. One time, after childbirth, [Gertrude] was lying in bed and came very near to dying. Women today go through suffering in different ways. Because of medical advances and access to education, I think women now suffer less than women of the 19th century. But there’s still pressure on women and they must juggle their responsibilities—work, children, education.
E: How have your experiences shaped who you are?
C: Hopefully we learn from our experiences. I read all the time and love history. I was an English major, and then when I went to graduate school, I decided to study history because of women’s lives. I got really interested in Henry VIII and why he could do this to all his wives—behead two of them and divorce two of them. It was just astounding to me. Women had no more political or legal power in England at the time. I call myself a skeptic, because I’m always asking questions. I’m always asking, “Why does it have to be this way?” And really, my generation lived through a revolution where women are concerned. In the 20th century we saw more and more opportunities open up for women.
(E): Do you think losing four children affected Gertrude’s view on motherhood?
(C): She loved her children. She was a good mother and grandmother. But the last one she had during the war, she said, “I hope I die, and if I die, I hope the child dies, too.” Yes, her attitude towards childbirth changed. I think she resented being pregnant all the time. A lot of women said to me, “Why didn’t she just tell her husband ‘no’?” Women had a hard time doing this, and they had no birth control. And men thought it was their right and that it was her duty. I don’t think she wanted to have any more. When she got pregnant, she said, “This is too early.” She would’ve liked to have more separation in between the children. She was pregnant the same time her mother was pregnant. Can you imagine? Her mother had twelve children. Birth control was one of the most important medical advances for women in the 20th century. It freed women from having to be pregnant all the time.
E: Why do you think Gertrude declined the invitation to join what was later named Alpha Delta Pi?
C: I think she chose to be more academic than some of the other girls who chose to be more social. I can identify with this. I think she was so devoted to her reading and studying. She was flattered because she was invited, but she just didn’t have time.
E: What can we, as modern women, learn from Gertrude?
C: One of the things I always emphasize is to learn to examine things and think for yourself. I believe in a broad-based liberal arts education. It’s to teach you how to think and evaluate and to know the difference between truth and propaganda, right and wrong. It teaches you to stand up for yourself and be proud to be a woman. Gertrude teaches women that bad things can happen to good people, but you can survive. There are a lot of things we can learn from her.
E: If Gertrude were alive today, what do you think she’d be up to?
C: She’d be really involved in these elections. She’d be out working for the women. I’m so excited that so many are going to be working in Congress. I’m working on a re-release of my book [for 2020] and looking at the time between 1900 and 1920 when the [19th Amendment] was passed. In the hundred years between 1920 and 2020, we have so many more women in politics. Who would’ve dreamed in 1920 that one day an African American woman would’ve gotten half the votes in the state of Georgia! I’m just encouraged by the number of women who have now gotten into politics. I think Gertrude would be right in the middle of it.
E: What drove you to establish Women Alone Together?
C: Well, it’s sort of a long story. I was teaching at the University of Kentucky. These older women were auditing my class because they could do so free-of-charge if they were 65 or older. Usually it was after the death of their spouse. You know, they didn’t have women’s history when they were in college. I got really interested in these women, so I asked my students to do an oral history of their lives. One of our students presented an oral history of Betty Morgan, who was a nurse in WWII in the South Pacific. There, she was the head of the operating room. She came back here and was a nurse for four years, and her husband was a doctor. He had Alzheimer’s and she nursed him until his death. She wore three gold bands on her hand: one to represent her young life as a nurse in the South Pacific, one to represent her married life, and the last band to validate her later life as a woman alone after the death of her spouse—her late years. There’s a huge need for this in our culture. So, I came back to Atlanta and wanted to teach seminars to empower women. Women are so interesting, but they get pushed aside. They don’t get remarried like men do. You can love your husband and be supportive. But you need to have a part of your life for yourself. You may not do it for money, but do something you love.
E: Would you agree with Margaret Mitchell and Gertrude that a woman’s education is the most important thing she’ll ever own?
C: Yes, I say to Bill all the time that education is the key. Your family, your husband, your children, your relationships should be the most important thing in your life. But education is right up there behind it. It is just central to me and to my family, and I’ve always pushed education for my son and my daughter.
Carolyn Curry began researching and reading the diaries of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas in the 1970s and continues to be enraptured by her strength and perseverance as a 19th century woman fighting for women’s rights. Carolyn, like Ella Gertrude, was determined to finish her education after she married and while raising children; she took one course at a time in graduate school but eventually completed her PhD at Georgia State University in 1987—all the while supporting Bill and organizing luncheons and events for his college and professional football teams. The passion she has for women’s education and women’s history radiated in every moment of the conversation. Her advice for anyone and everyone is to “find something where you lose yourself,” and you’ll never be unfulfilled.
Carolyn was a wonderful host who exuded the same warmth and gentleness that I saw in her husband when I interviewed him a few weeks ago. It’s wonderful to witness their mutual support and respect for one another’s personal pursuits. In Suffer and Grow Strong, readers truly see Carolyn’s passion shine through the pages. The book is engaging and powerful, and I devoured it within a few days. Ella Gertrude’s story is one of hardship, “survival, and transformation that speaks to women in our own time.”
Suffer and Grow Strong is available on our website or wherever fine books are sold.