Q&A with Dr. Carolyn Curry, author of SUFFER AND GROW STRONG: THE LIFE OF ELLA GERTRUDE CLANTON THOMAS, 1834-1907
By Elizabeth Tammi
In 2015, Dr. Carolyn Curry’s book Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas released from Mercer University Press. Curry first got interested in the extensive diaries and life of this Georgia woman when she wrote her dissertation for her PhD.
Now, as we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, Curry returns with an expanded edition of her celebrated biography. She spoke with me over the phone about the writing and research process, and what this book and historical figure mean to her on this pivotal anniversary.
Could you tell me about the process of creating this expanded edition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage? How did the idea to make an expanded edition come about?
Well, I’ve got to give credit to Marc Jolley, director of Mercer University Press. I was very fortunate that my original book sold through several editions. I made about 100 speaking engagements, trying to tell people about this woman that they had never heard of, but I thought she was important for them to know about, and also what women were doing in the nineteenth century.
The book really resonated with people, and women especially, but even some men. Marc and I talked about this being the hundredth anniversary of the vote for women so he just contacted me and said, “Carolyn, would you like to expand your book and take it up to 1920, when women finally were successful and got to vote?” After Gertrude died in 1907—along with all those women who fought so hard in the nineteenth century who also died around the turn of the century—the fight had to be turned over to a younger group of women. I loved the topic and told Marc “I’d be glad to do it,” so I jumped in and started doing research. I’ve been so pleased that this expanded edition has come out now and I’m going to be speaking on it some right away—it’s timely and so important to talk about, especially this year.
On this anniversary, what do you hope your readers can take away from Gertrude’s efforts in the suffrage movement as we look ahead?
When I first started doing this book, it was my dissertation topic for my PhD back in 1987. I wanted to find a Georgia woman who I could write a biography about. When I came through graduate school, that was the beginning of the writing about women. In the 70s and the 80s, when we were in school, there was no such thing as women’s studies or women’s history or anything like that. We were always asking in our classes, “Where are the women? Why aren’t the women included? What are the women doing?”
I really was passionate about finding the women and talking about the women who had been forgotten, because our stories have not always been told. I want young women to know how hard it was for women to get the vote. I want them to understand their history so that they will appreciate it. Women had to fight to get the right to vote and we’re still having to work to get women to go out and vote. Today, voter turnout in this country is very low, so we’ve got to all take the vote. It’s a real responsibility.
Delving more into the crafting of this book when you were first writing it, how did you go about making the decisions of how to divide different subjects and different time periods in this book?
This book took years of research. I had these volumes of her diary that I got the transcripts from. I had an advantage in that I was writing a biography, and if you’re writing a biography, you’re writing somebody’s life story. You have a natural chronology, and of course I had to start when she was fourteen years old because that’s when she started writing her diary.
I started there, and then I wanted to organize it around the changes in her life. I had to study the diaries, study the scrapbooks and her writings from later in life to just glean as much information as I could from various periods in her life. When I was talking about her going to Wesleyan, I went to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and looked in their archives for any related material I could find. I interviewed her relatives, and did secondary research when I had to. I had a natural chronology, but I did have voluminous material to work through and select what I was going to talk about.
I very often ended a chapter with, “What will this lead to? Where will I end up?” I tried to keep my reader interested by making it read like a novel. People’s lives are interesting and if you can tell it in a way that draws people in, that’s important.
While you were doing all this research, did you ever come across a fact or bit of trivia that didn’t necessarily fit in the book but that stuck with you?
I did such voluminous research writing it for my dissertation. There were some things that I couldn’t put in just because when she was a young girl, she just loved to talk about what she was wearing every day. I did try to put every possible interesting tidbit I could in the book. I’ve been told that historians just have to stop and write the book, because you could do research forever. Research can be fun and frustrating at the same time, but I tried to put it all in.
What three words would you use to describe Gertrude?
Well, you’ve got to say she was intelligent. She was compelled to ask questions. She lived an examined life. She was looking at her life intelligently and trying to make sense of it. I would definitely say inquisitive. She wanted to read newspapers, she wanted to read what people were thinking, she wanted to know what was going on. Then, I think hard-working. She was always trying to find a way to help the family after the war.
If you could only tell someone just one anecdote from Gertrude’s life that you think sums her up, what do you think that story would be?
There’s one that I have told over and over when I have gone to speak. I talk about when she was elected president of the Georgia Women’s Suffrage Association in 1899. This was a woman who grew up in a culture that said women should not speak in public. She stood up in the House of Representatives when she was elected president, and she said, “Woman was not taken from the head of man. She is not his superior. Woman was not taken from the foot of man. She is not his inferior. Woman was taken from the side of man, and there she should stand as equal in the work of the world.”
This was in 1899. This was 21 years before women got the right to vote, and how many women were saying in 1899 that women should be equal to men? Not many. She was in that handful who had the courage to stand up and I think that was really astounding and so progressive for that period in history. That summed up all her work. She was really devoted to the betterment of women.
As a historian, what do you feel that Gertrude’s diaries show about the Civil War era that might not be found through secondary sources?
I think the great thing about Gertrude’s diary is that she didn’t think anybody was going to read it except her children. She was very honest, and she ended up pouring her emotions into the diary. A historian can tell you the facts, but you read her diary and you know what it was like for people when troops were approaching their house or their city.
Gertrude might have given us the best picture of what women suffered in childbirth in the nineteenth century. If the baby was sick, they didn’t know what was wrong. The baby would get a fever and just die. It was emotionally wrenching for these women, and I think that comes through. It’s the emotion, the feeling, the anguish, and the fear. I mean, I teared up. When one of her babies died, she tried to reconcile it to her Christian belief. She said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” But then she said, “But oh, it is so hard!”
How do you think that suffering makes people stronger?
Getting through something does make you stronger. Gertrude went through so much grief. She did learn how to turn outward. That’s one reason she became so concerned about the wellbeing of other women. She had suffered during the war, and she realized how important it was for women to have an education. She became more sensitive to other women than she would have been had she not suffered. She might not have been the person she was, if she had never lost her fortune or gone through the war.
It’s what we learn from the suffering, and hopefully we learn that we can survive, and that’s a good thing to know.
What do you think are some of the largest issues facing American women today?
Well, what I really believe, and this comes through Gertrude’s life too, Gertrude asked a lot of questions and she just didn’t accept what people told her. I think that’s very important for young women and young people to learn. We have to decide what we want our contribution to be. What do we want to do with our lives? That is a part of the educational process and maturation. I always encourage young people to find that thing that you love to do. When you do find it, do it with all of your heart and that’s going to make you happy. I’ve been passionate about learning about women. I have a nonprofit foundation that I’ve been running for 18 years called “Women Alone Together”. I try to help women who are coming off of grief—loss of a spouse, loss of a child. It’s helping women. We do seminars, groups, we’re doing something all the time.
Don’t be gullible. Make sound decisions based on what you know. That’s what education is all about—teaching us how to think for ourselves.
Click to download Mercer University’s Press Release for Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas!
Click here to purchase from the Press: https://www.mupress.org/Suffer-and-Grow-Strong-The-Life-of-Ella-Gertrude-Clanton-Thomas-1834-1907-P867.aspx
Receive 20% off + free shipping from the Press with this coupon code: MUPNEWS