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Contentment and the Pursuit of Ambition: The Grattans and Their Remarkable Women

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The Grattan family included some of the most prominent women in the antebellum South - women who lived, at times, in the Shenandoah Valley. The matriarch of the Grattan family, Catherine Grattan Gamble, was the mother of a First Lady of Virginia, Agnes Gamble Cabell, and the mother of the wife of a United States Attorney General, Elizabeth Gamble Wirt. Catherine's niece Elizabeth "Bess" Grattan married George R. Gilmer and went on to serve as First Lady of Georgia.

The Grattan family history conflicts with generalizations about the antebellum South. Many believe the antebellum world was led by wealthy, wise male aristocrats who were supported by dutiful women, such as wives, servants, and sometimes even mistresses.

Such traditional images don't match aspects of life in the past. Life expectancy in 1900 was only 46 years, and accidents were very common. Almost every antebellum community included widows running farms and businesses - a trend that continued long after the Civil War.

The Grattan family was no exception. The oldest son, John Grattan Jr., was killed in combat by the British during the American Revolution while the youngest was still a child. As a result, many of the Grattan women's activities, such as running a store, managing a mill, and buying merchandise for the store, were driven by necessity. Catherine's significance was also reinforced by ther knowledge of German. In a community with many neighbors of German descent, she negotiated transactions and created much of the family's wealth.

Contentment and the Pursuit of Ambition: The Grattans and Their Remarkable Women reveals generations of strong women able to assume roles normally reserved for men. In discovering the history of the Grattan women, we find overlooked examples of how women shaped American History.