U.S. history has minimized the role of women, particularly Southern women, until quite recently. Written largely by Caucasian-American men, American history focuses on men who monopolized the field — even at women’s colleges.
When Carolyn Newton Curry was a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia State University, exploring topics for her dissertation in the late 1970s and early 1980, no women’s studies or history courses were offered. A lecture by Anne Firor Scott — the first female chair of Duke University’s history department and author of the groundbreaking The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 — set Curry on the path to finding a fascinating 19th-century woman to study.
With Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas of Augusta, Georgia, she succeeded. She also uncovered a strong connection with the Women’s Movement in the North and a link to Chautauqua Institution.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum, Curry will give a talk titled “Then and Now: The Impact of Chautauqua on the Women’s Movement in the South.”
Curry’s book, Suffer & Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1834-1907, is based on her doctoral dissertation.
“[I]n every course I took I found myself asking, ‘Where are the women?’ So often they were simply left out,” Curry wrote in the introduction. “If a woman was mentioned, it was either in connection to her husband — who was the president of the United States — or her name was Pocahontas. I remember there was usually a single line that read ‘Women were given the vote in 1920.’ ”
Almost nothing has been written about the Suffrage Movement and the Women’s Movement in the South, Curry said. Women could not own property, and they were not guardians of their own children.
“A woman speaking her mind — being ‘strong-minded’ — was not attractive,” she said.
Born outside Augusta in 1834 to one of Georgia’s wealthiest families, Thomas “started out as a woman who shouldn’t be heard and shouldn’t speak out,” Curry said.
Thomas graduated in 1851 from the first college for women in the U.S., Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. Through grit and determination, she survived devastating personal, family and financial circumstances during and long after the Civil War.
In praising Suffer & Grow Strong, best-selling author Pat Conroy wrote that Thomas’ “courage and resilience are reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara” in “Gone With the Wind.”
“Yes,” Curry said, “but she was Scarlett O’Hara with a conscience.”
The Augusta Women’s Christian Temperance Union was particularly strong, and as Thomas’ involvement with it increased, so did her boldness. She was elected vice president in 1889, as well as district president.
The WCTU was established in Cleveland immediately following discussions at Chautauqua during the Institution’s inaugural summer of 1874.
In Atlanta, Thomas joined the young Georgia Woman Suffrage Association and the nascent Atlanta Equal Suffrage Association. Considered radical, their members challenged the restricted roles of Southern women.
During the Georgia Women’s Suffrage Association’s first state convention in 1899, Thomas not only spoke in support of women’s suffrage, but also claimed equality for men and women. The high point of her public career was being elected GWSA president at this convention, Curry said.
“I will talk about the women of Chautauqua who went south,” Curry said. “Gertrude heard them. The Women’s Movement in the South was behind the North. It has always been behind in women’s rights. Women weren’t supposed to speak in public in the 19th century. But they did in Chautauqua.”
Curry will also talk about the status of women in the South today, including their representation — and lack thereof — in state and federal government.
“The well-being of women past and present is my passion,” Curry said. “Look at our world now. There are countries where women are not educated, just as in Georgia in Gertrude’s time. A woman from an Ivy League college asked me, ‘Why women’s history?’ Yet some women’s colleges are struggling. I want to tell about these outstanding women of the past that no one has heard of.”
Suffer & Grow Strong has garnered numerous honors and within the past four years, Curry has also won two Georgia State alumni awards, and the 2014 Agnes Scott College Distinguished Alumna Award – Service to the Community.
“A woman whose husband has just died came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t find you, this book found me,’ ” she said. “I wrote the book admiring [Gertrude], and then for it to help and inspire people, that was a surprise.”
In Atlanta in 2002, Curry launched a nonprofit foundation called “Women Alone Together.”
In partnership with the alumnae association of Agnes Scott in metropolitan Atlanta, Women Alone Together strives to build community and confidence among women who are, or feel that they are, on their own for whatever reason.
Through seminars, a reading group that builds on them, casual get-togethers, and day-long trips, Curry has been counteracting the natural tendency of women to withdraw socially when they are alone.
Today, Curry divides her time between writing history, her work with women, and her family, including several grandchildren.
“I say I wear two caps: one in academia and one in the real world,” she said. “I’m not just writing about women. I’m with women. I want to apply [history] to the real world. I want to understand what’s happening today.”