10 influential Tennessee women who’ve made an impact

Photo courtesy of Women’s History Month

Story by Erin Morris / Contributing Writer 

There will never be enough time or space in a single article to name every woman who has had an impact on women’s history. That’s why, in honor of National Women’s History Month, we’re focusing on 10 women who’ve impacted the history of Tennessee.

Lizzie Crozier French

According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Lizzie Crozier French served as president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and consistently fought for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Some of her other achievements include the organization of the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Association, opening the East Tennessee Female Institute and founding the Women’s Industrial and Educational Union. After years of pushing for women’s rights, her efforts finally paid off. 

Anne Dallas Dudley

Another well-known Tennessee woman is Anne Dallas Dudley. She fought alongside suffragettes and the French and led a march of 2,000 people in Nashville in 1914. Before long, her name became known throughout the nation. Her biggest accomplishments include being the first female associate of the Tennessee Democratic Committee, the first female delegate-at-large of the National Democratic Convention in 1920 and President of the Maternal Welfare Organization of Tennessee. Her activism inspired not only other women in Tennessee to fight for their rights, but also others across the country.

Mary Eliza Church Terrell

Seventy years before Dudley’s time, Mary Eliza Church Terrell was an African-American woman also fighting for equality. She became one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree at Oberlin College, and she was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. It doesn’t stop there, though. She was also the first African-American appointed to a school board and the first African American admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women. 

Diane Nash

Diane Nash first transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she personally witnessed the racial divide and inequality that led her to fight for the rights of people of color. As an activist, Nash actually served time in jail for peacefully protesting. Nash also played a major role in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965, which isn’t surprising considering she also coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride for Nashville Freedom Riders. Nash put her education on hold while she continued to work for a company known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Wilma Rudolph

After suffering from polio, Clarksville native Wilma Rudolph regained the ability to walk at the age of 12 after years of therapy. Rudolph started training in track and field at Tennessee State University, and she continued to pursue her athletic dreams of becoming an Olympian. Her dreams were realized when she won bronze at the 1956 Olympics. She also won three gold medals and broke three world records during the 1960 Olympics. It’s no wonder she was named the “black gazelle” for her grace and speed. Needless to say, she broke down both gender and racial barriers throughout her career.

Tracy Caulkins

Tracy Caulkins is a three-time gold medalist and five-time world champion who calls Nashville home. Caulkins is originally from Minnesota but moved to Nashville where she attended Harpeth Hall. This Olympic champion held five world records, 63 American records and 48 National Championship titles before graduating from the University of Florida. While she was captain of the U.S. Women’s Swim Team, Caulkins  received a gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley, the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter medley relay. Caulkins is now deservingly featured in the International Swimmers Hall of Fame.

Martha Craig Daughtrey

Another woman who successfully impacted Tennessee’s history is Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey. Daughtrey made history for being the first female Assistant U.S. Attorney, first woman to teach as a faculty member at Vanderbilt Law School in 1972 and the first woman to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1990. Early in her career she was deemed one of 10 outstanding women in 1976. Since then, she has served as president of the National Association of Women Judges from 1985 until 1986, a director of the Nashville Bar Association from 1988 to 1990 and a board member of the American Judicature Society from 1988 to 1992. As the years have gone by, she’s continuously set the bar higher for women that want to follow in her footsteps.

Margaret Rhea Seddon

Politics and activism are just two of the many fields that created some of the most historical women. Women like Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon also had an impact in the scientific field. She was one of the first women to enter the U.S. Astronaut Program. She’s originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and during her career she earned 30 days in space and a spot on three flights as Mission Specialist and Payload Commander. A few years ago, she was named Assistant Chief Medical Officer of the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville and held the  position for 11 years. Now she’s a published author, and she still resides in Murfreesboro.

Tina Turner

Many know Nashville as Music City, and many important female musicians got their start there, including the iconic Tina Turner. Turner was born in a small town called Nutbush. In 1958, her career started when she performed as Little Ann alongside the Kings of Rhythm, led by Ike Turner. Throughout her career, she’s had numerous hit songs and has broken several Billboard charts. Turner still continues to be an inspiration through her music.

Dolly Parton

“Good golly, it’s Miss Dolly” is a phrase that’s linked to the legendary Dolly Parton, who’s composed over 3,000 songs. The country music icon was born and raised in Tennessee, and over the years, she has given back to the state that gave her career its start. Parton’s involvement with the Smoky Mountains Rise Telethon helped numerous families that suffered from the Smoky Mountain wildfires in 2016. Parton is also pushing for childhood literacy with Books From Birth, which advocates for Tennessee children to begin reading at a younger age. In fact, Dolly just donated her 100 millionth book to her nonprofit Imagination Library. 


National Women’s History Month is the time to recognize women for their successes and impact on the world, and hopefully this list has demonstrated the importance of the roles Tennessee women have played throughout history. These women demonstrated that no matter what background you come from or what your passion is, you can make a difference and pave a path for other women.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Tayhlor Stephenson, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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