CAROLYN CURRY, Ph.D.
A Note from the Author
I have been intrigued by Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas for almost 30 years. As a graduate student searching for a topic for my dissertation, I went to Duke University to review her diary. It is a treasure, containing Gertrude’s most intimate thoughts from 1848 to 1889. I learned more of her story from court documents and from her fifteen meticulously-kept scrapbooks. I ultimately uncovered one woman’s sixty-year journey from a childhood of luxury, through the Civil War and Reconstruction in Georgia, and into the twentieth century. Gertrude exhibited strength and remarkable spiritual and emotional growth in the face of unimaginable adversity. Her transformation from Southern Lady to New Woman of the New South has had a tremendous impact on my life. Her story, along with those of other powerful women, helped to inspire my founding in 2002 of Women Alone Together, a non-profit that provides confidence and community to women who are “alone” for any reason. I believe Gertrude’s story will inspire other women – and maybe a few men, too.
Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas was an intelligent, spirited woman born in 1834 to one of the wealthiest families in Georgia. At fourteen, she began keeping a diary. Her accounts of life before, during, and after the Civil War filled 13 volumes with 450,000 words. The war and its aftermath changed her life forever. She experienced poverty, illness, and devastating family strife. She saw four of her ten children die. She grew to question the “peculiar institution” upon which the antebellum South was built. Through it all, Thomas poured her thoughts into her diary, and through it all, she persevered. In her later years, she became a leading voice in the suffrage and temperance movements.
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Suffer and Grow Strong is a remarkable biography by Carolyn Curry that is destined to become a classic in women's studies. It tells the story of the redoubtable Ella Gertrude Thomas, who kept a vivid record of her life for forty-one years. Her courage and resilience during and after the Civil War are reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara. History has been a great silencer of women, but Suffer and Grow Strong tells the tale of a white Southern woman who endures the whirlwind of the war and the deprivations of Reconstruction, then fought hard enough for women's rights that my grandmother was eligible to cast her first vote in 1920. This book is a great achievement for Carolyn Curry.
Thomas’s journals have long been an indispensable source for anyone seeking to understand the nineteenth-century South and Southern white women’s experiences. Yet surprisingly, Thomas has never been the subject of a full-length biography. Carolyn Curry’s welcome new book carefully documents Thomas’s life story and puts her journals into an intriguingly fresh context.