There’s barely enough time in the day, let alone words on this page, to describe the many great women of Tennessee who have come before us. We have gathered a list (albeit incomplete) of 27 influential women in five fields who have made their mark on history. These ladies are celebrated figures for influencing and inspiring women who have come after them, us included.
There are dozens of great athletes who have left their Tennessee towns to compete on the world stage. Each driven by sheer talent, dedication and a competitive drive, these ladies have changed the name of the game.
Wilma Rudolph, born in Clarksville, Tennessee, overcame polio and sprinted her way to winning Olympic gold. After regaining the ability to walk at age 12, Wilma began her sports career. She trained as a track and field sprinter at Tennessee State University and attended — and won bronze during — the 1956 Olympics. She also won three gold medals and broke three world records during the 1960 Olympic games. Dubbed “The Black Gazelle,” Wilma was known for her grace and speed. After retiring in 1962, she coached and worked with underprivileged kids, was inducted into the U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame in the 1980s and sadly passed away in 1994 at the age of 54.
Another Olympic champion, Tracy Caulkins, hails from Tennessee. This three-time gold medalist and five-time world champion was born in Minnesota but moved to Nashville, where she attended Harpeth Hall. At a young age, Tracy established her career as a swimmer. She held five world records, 63 American records and 48 National Championship titles before graduating from the University of Florida. In 1984, as captain of the U.S. Women’s Swim Team, Tracy won gold in the 400-meter individual medley, the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter medley relay. She earned her place in the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, Florida Sports Hall of Fame and International Swimming Hall of Fame.
At a time before the NCAA sponsored women’s basketball and before the WNBA was founded, Nera White found a way to play ball. While attending George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University), Nera played on an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team sponsored by Nashville Business College. By the time she retired at age 33 in 1969 she had competed in 10 AAU National Championships, was named Most Outstanding Player in the AAU 10 times and AAU All-American for 15 years in a row and won the World Championships in 1957. She was later inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. She pioneered women’s basketball and had a mean lay-up!
Only years after Nera’s retirement another basketball legend joined her at center court in the history of Tennessee basketball. Pat Summitt was named head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols in 1974 at just 22 years old. Years spent on the Cheatham County High School and University of Tennessee-Martin basketball teams were followed by a knee injury that almost ruined her chance at the Olympic team. Although her knee healed and she competed at the 1976 Olympics, it was not her time on the court that made her basketball royalty — it was her time on the sidelines. For 38 years, Pat dedicated herself to the Lady Vols, who won eight NCAA Championships, 32 Southeastern Conferences and 1,098 games under her leadership. Pat made a lasting impact on the sport and the 161 student athletes she coached. Known for her stern coaching methods and piercing blue eyes, Pat supported her players until the end. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Pat ended her tenure at Tennessee in April of 2012, a year after her diagnosis. Four years later, the legendary coach passed away and fans donned orange in her honor.
Women across the state fought hard for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. As a proud enthusiast of education for women and dedication to the advancement of women’s rights, Lizzie Crozier French organized the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Association, was president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs, acted as state chair of the National Woman’s Party, opened and directed the East Tennessee Female Institute, founded the Women’s Industrial and Educational Union and founded Ossoli Circle. She was able to see the fruition of her efforts when the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Anne Dallas Dudley was another well-known name among suffragettes as she was the founder and first president of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, President of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 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. She became a household name in Nashville after she led a march of 2,000 women through town in 1914.
Two women 70 years apart represented Tennessee in the fight for women of color. Born in 1863 in Memphis, Mary Church Terrell stood for African-American women. At Oberlin College, she became one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree — and that was only one in her series of firsts. Terrell was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first African-American appointment to a school board and the first African American admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women. Shortly after seeing the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Terrell passed away in Washington, D.C.
The second trailblazer in this set is Diane Nash, a student leader of the sit-in movement in Nashville. Upon transferring to Fisk University, she was shocked and dismayed by the racial divide that was not commonplace in her hometown of Chicago. Diane Nash first served jail time while sitting in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine” from North Carolina. Her passion for desegregation grew, and Nash took her voice to Birmingham by coordinating the Nashville Student Movement Ride for Nashville Freedom Riders. She played a major role in the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965. She put her college education on hold as she worked full-time with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Modern-day trailblazers come in the form of the Honorable Janice M. Holder, the first female to serve as Chief Justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court; the Rev. Becca Stevens, founder of the Nashville-based Thistle Farms, a social enterprise and residency program to benefit women survivors of trafficking, addiction and prostitution; and Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg, who has long been active in civil rights and women’s rights and gained the honor she deserves for this work from the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (THRC) in 2013. She was appointed to the THRC in 1971, authored the legislation that became the Tennessee Human Rights Act, was appointed by President Gerald R. Ford to the International Women’s Year Commission and brought the Panel of American Women to Memphis.
Hungarian by birth, Elizabeth Rona made her way to Nashville by way of London, Germany, Austria, Sweden, France, Washington, D.C., California and Florida. Only 15 years of her career were spent in Tennessee, but it was the place she chose to call home during retirement and where she passed away in 1981. In 2015, she was inducted into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame for her work in nuclear chemistry and physics, which prompted her participation in the Manhattan Project, isotope discovery and the making of polonium sources.
In 1978, Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon was selected as one of the first women to enter the U.S. astronaut program. Throughout her career, she earned her spot on three flights and spent 30 days in space as Mission Specialist and Payload Commander. Revered for her contribution to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Rhea left a lasting impact on women in the field. After her departure from NASA, the Murfreesboro-native was named Assistant Chief Medical Officer of the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville, a position she held for 11 years. It was here that she led an initiative directed towards patient safety, quality of care and team effectiveness. Her talents now lie with LifeWings Partners, LLC, and her stories are on the pages of her recent book, Go for Orbit.
Arts & Entertainment
It should come as no surprise that Tennessee has produced some amazing musical talents like Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Tina Turner. Although born on a farm in Mississippi, music eventually brought Tammy Wynette to Tennessee. With no money to her name, no one interested in her music and three children to raise, it is almost unbelievable that she went on to sell more than 30 million records as well as earn a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
No dumb blonde, Dolly Parton also found success in the music industry and continues to make an impact today, most recently with her Smoky Mountains Rise Telethon, which raised money for all those who lost their homes in the fires last year. Born in the mountains of East Tennessee, Dolly overcame poverty and is now as revered for the millions of dollars she has invested in Tennessee attractions as she is for the 3,000+ songs she’s composed. Today, she is still belting it like never before and dedicating her time to fighting for early childhood literacy with the Books From Birth initiative. Dolly is, and forever will be, known as a trailblazer for ladies in music.
Tina Turner’s sound embodies much more of the R&B style of St. Louis than the twang of Tennessee, but since Tina was born in the tiny Tennessee town of Nutbush and spent the early years of her life here, we are claiming her as our own.
Mary Noailles Murfree, under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock, was a trailblazer for Appalachian literature. Set in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee and the Great Smokies, her works of fiction and short fiction contributed to the local-color movement in American literature. It was eventually revealed that Charles Egbert Craddock and Mary Noailles Murfree were one in the same, and it came as much surprise to her Boston editors. In the 19th century when most women were not educated, Mary was ahead of her time.
Best-selling author Ann Patchett works to bring male and female writers and their works to her Nashville independently owned bookstore, Parnassus Books. Ann is the author of seven novels and has numerous awards and fellowships to her name, but we honor her today as a spokesperson and fighter for independent bookstores.
Martha Ingram is a household name in Nashville for both her time as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Ingram Industries as well as her dedication to the growth of the arts in Nashville. Her financial contributions and time dedicated to The Vanderbilt Blair School of Music, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Nashville Ballet, Nashville Opera Association, the Nashville Institute for the Arts and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra have made a lasting impact on the city’s art culture. President Richard Nixon appointed Martha to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center in 1972. Her exposure to the arts fueled her desire to bring local access for Nashvillians. It is with the helping hand of Martha Ingram that the Nashville art community has only continued to thrive.
Government & Politics
Few women from Tennessee have made their way into the White House. Emily Donelson, niece of Andrew Jackson, served as White House hostess under her uncle. Emily chose to stand against Peggy Eaton during the Petticoat Affair, causing a rift between her and her uncle. First Lady Eliza McCardle Johnson also hails from Tennessee and was the first among few First Ladies born into poverty. In 1827, she married Andrew Johnson, whose written communicative skills she helped refine. She also helped Johnson hone his public speaking skills and urged him into experiences that ultimately led his campaign to success.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Beth Harwell made her way to Tennessee and now has the title of Speaker of the House in the Tennessee House of Representatives — the first woman to hold this title. Through her current and previous positions in government, she has been an advocate for tougher sexual abuse laws, victims’ rights, welfare reform, children’s issues and education. Her list of accolades is long and we only anticipate it growing.
Tennessee women have been aiming to be the first on the national, state and local level for many years: Anna Lee Keys Worley was the first woman elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1921; Willa McCord Blake Eslick became the first Tennessee woman in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1932; Judge Martha Daughtrey was first woman Assistant U.S. Attorney, the 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; Thelma Harper was the first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1989; Megan Barry was the first female mayor in Nashville in 2015.; and the list goes on and on.
Meet more inspiring women here!