One hundred years ago, as a groundswell of momentum pushed toward women winning the right to vote, a robust and energetic movement overtook Tennessee – and an epic battle for women’s rights ensued.
With the swing vote for suffrage on the line, the country turned to the Volunteer State to decide.
When legislators met on Nashville’s Capitol Hill during the sweltering summer of 1920, Tennessee suffragists stood boldly alongside, yellow roses pinned to their dresses.
What had for a long time been a matter of justice and fair play had become a matter of pride. Champions of the cause knew it could be their moment of glory – or their worst defeat.
In the end, their passion and persistence shined through. With a series of momentous votes, Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.
The events of that year advanced the role of women in Tennessee and across the country.
Now, a century later, America is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving us the chance to reflect on that moment in history and use it to uplift leaders of yesterday and today.
To mark the occasion, the USA TODAY Network is naming the Women of the Century. This list recognizes 10 women from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, and the contributions each made to her state and to the country.
Women of the Century: Recognizing the accomplishments of women from the last 100 years
The women on this list have made significant, unique and lasting differences in our lives in the past 100 years. They have celebrated outstanding achievements in areas such as arts and literature, business, civil rights, education, entertainment, law, media, nonprofits and philanthropy, politics, science and medicine, and sports.
Tennessee’s rich history of uplifting women started early and has only strengthened since. We are excited to celebrate the change-makers among us who represent the best of womankind. But we know that picking only 10 women leaves out so many dynamic figures and powerful accomplishments.
Our Tennessee suffragists, for example, paved the way for so much. Indeed, when women won the right to vote, the entire world changed. But there were so many important leaders among them – Lizzie Crozier French, Anne Dallas Dudley and Sue Shelton White to name a few – we couldn’t possibly select only one or two. The suffragists of Tennessee deserve their own list.
We discussed other historic figures, including female flyers Cornelia Fort and Phoebe Omlie, who was named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the special assistant for air intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA), the first female government official in aviation.
So, too, some of the state’s most notable contemporaries were considered. Dynamic women such as Liane Russell, the geneticist whose research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory led to careful guidelines for administering radiological procedures to women of child-bearing age. And Martha Ingram, a businesswoman and generous philanthropist who in 1995 succeeded her late husband as chairman and chief executive officer of Ingram Industries, one of America’s largest privately held companies.
Others we marveled at included the Hon. Aleta Trauger, the first female U.S. district judge for the Middle District of Tennessee, and Miriam DeCosta Willis, an educator and civil rights activist who became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, and later returned to Memphis to become the first Black faculty member at the university that had once denied her entrance.
Those included in the Tennessee Women of the Century come from various generations and across a spectrum of industries and backgrounds, but all have been champions of the same pioneering spirit displayed by the Tennessee women who fought for what was right. And won.
Civil rights activist
When Maxine Smith was denied admission to Memphis State University in 1957 because she was Black, she was “mad as hell,” she told The Commercial Appeal before her death in 2013 at 83.
In that moment, she forged a path that led her to become one of the most influential civil rights leaders in Tennessee history.
Smith was one of the first women to join the NAACP Memphis branch, and from 1962 to 1995 she served as the executive secretary, leading the organization through some of the most important moments in Memphis’ civil rights history as the city outlawed Jim Crow and ushered in an era of laws grounded in equality.
She was there through the fight to integrate Memphis schools, desegregate the city’s public facilities, the sanitation workers strike of 1968 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She organized protests and sit-ins and had a front-row seat for the violence and victories of the time.
Smith, who received the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award in 2003, had political influence that spread across the nation.
“Her unwavering commitment to social justice and to public education shone as an example of dedicated public service that inspired those around her and left a lasting legacy,” former President Barack Obama wrote in a letter read at her funeral.
Growing up in the closed government city that would one day be known as the epicenter of the Manhattan Project entailed a life full of secrecy. It wasn’t until the United States detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, that Marilou Awiakta and other Oak Ridge, Tennessee, residents realized they had been living on the atomic frontier.
Awiakta has used her poetry and essays to pull the curtain back on this turning point in U.S. and world history. For decades, her writing has fused experiences of her childhood with nuclear power; intersected her C heritage with meditations on science.
Her most significant work, “Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet,” combines her childhood experiences with Appalachian legends and the ancient lore of her Cherokee ancestors to capture what it was like to grow up around a power that would change the world forever.
Her published works include “Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery” and “Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom.”
She received the Distinguished Tennessee Writer Award in 1989 and was given the Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award in 1991. She lives in Memphis.
Olympic gold medalist
A sports icon in track and field, Wilma Rudolph – a sprinter – was golden.
Born in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, just outside Clarksville, she survived bouts of polio and scarlet fever and required leg braces and orthopedic shoes until age 11. But she had an unquenchable spirit.
She went on to play basketball in high school and was recruited to run track and field for renowned coach Ed Temple at Tennessee State University. At 16, Rudolph won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. She then became the preeminent member of the TSU Tigerbelles.
In September 1960 in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. That year she won the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and the 4×100-meter relay.
The following year she received a plethora of honors, including the James E. Sullivan Award in 1961, given to the top amateur athlete in the United States, and the Helms World Trophy, which has honored the foremost athlete of each continent.
A year before her death, Rudolph became the first woman to receive the National Sports Award, given to her by President Bill Clinton.
In 1994, the United States Olympic Committee honored Rudolph during the Olympic Congress in Nashville at Opryland Resort, just two days before her death.
She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and is remembered as one of the fastest women in track. In 2004, the United States Postal Service honored Rudolph by featuring her on a stamp.
Martha Craig Daughtrey
Tennessee’s first female prosecutor
Justice Martha Craig Daughtrey never waited for doors to be opened to her. Instead, as part of the modernist vanguard, she pushed through them – always making sure to hold them open for the woman behind her.
Daughtrey earned her law degree at Vanderbilt University in 1968 as one of only three women in the class. After graduation, she became the first woman assistant U.S. Attorney in the Middle Tennessee District and the first female prosecutor in Tennessee.
The role didn’t come easily. There were men who did not want her to argue criminal cases, afraid that the all-male juries of the time would not acquit based on arguments of a female attorney. And there were judges who declined to have her in their courtroom.
In 1972, she transitioned from the court to the classroom, taking her place as the first woman on the Vanderbilt law faculty. She realized that if she wasn’t the woman in the room, then there would be none.
In 1990, Gov. Ned McWherter chose Daughtrey to fill a vacancy the Tennessee Supreme Court – a moment she calls the most significant of her career. After completing the term of a justice who resigned, Daughtrey was elected to an eight-year term.
Three years later, President Bill Clinton nominated Daughtrey to the Senior U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. When confirmed, Daughtrey became the third woman to serve on the Sixth Circuit.
She assumed senior judge status in 2009.
Civil rights activist
For her entire adult life, Democratic state Rep. Lois DeBerry was dedicated to creating a better experience for Black Americans, first as an activist and later as an elected official helping to shape Tennessee’s laws.
Before becoming the first African American woman from Memphis in the Tennessee General Assembly, DeBerry earned her political experience on the front lines of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Since young adulthood, she was present for nearly every significant moment in the movement.
Just a few months after her 18th birthday, she attended the March on Washington. At 19, she was there for the bloody march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. While attending LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, she participated in student-led sit-ins to fight for the desegregation of public spaces.
By 27, she was headed to the Tennessee House of Representatives in Nashville with an Afro and “an attitude,” she told The Commercial Appeal as she recalled her career before her death in 2013 at 68.
Winning 20 elections in a row, DeBerry had one of the longest careers in the history of the Tennessee General Assembly. Her tenure there was spent fighting for community issues, women’s rights and access to a quality education.
Grammy Award-winning singer
A country music living legend and pop culture icon, Dolly Parton is one of the most recognized and beloved artists in the world.
This prolific artist has released almost 90 albums and written more than 700 songs, including No. 1 hits “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene.” She starred in classic films like “Steel Magnolias” and “9 to 5.”
She is one of a small group of artists to be nominated for the four major American entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Parton is a businesswoman and philanthropist. Dollywood, Dollywood’s Splash Country and her other tourism businesses have transformed East Tennessee’s economy, providing thousands of jobs and attracting millions of visitors each year.
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has mailed more than 133 million free books to children. Her My People Fund gave $9 million to people who lost their homes in the deadly fires that swept through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 2016.
While in her 70s, she has released three albums, launched a $37 million expansion of Dollywood and executive produced Netflix’s “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” anthology series.
She’s a 49-time Grammy nominee and 10-time winner, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, the Library of Congress gave her the Living Legend award.
Margaret Rhea Seddon
During her first day in space, Margaret Rhea Seddon felt like Superwoman. “You don’t have to walk any place,” she said, “you just fly.”
She didn’t just fly, she soared. Above the Earth and above the glass ceiling. One of the first six women to enter the astronaut program in 1978, Seddon spent 19 years with NASA. A trained surgeon, she flew on three space shuttle missions, logging more than 722 hours in space and orbiting the Earth 480 times.
Seddon grew up in Murfreesboro. She earned a degree in physiology at the University of California-Berkeley, then returned to Tennessee to pursue a doctorate of medicine from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis. At the time, it accepted very few women. In a class of 100 there were only six women, and she was the only woman in surgery residency.
She was in the space program seven years before her first flight. On April 12, 1985, Seddon lifted off aboard Discovery on her first mission, STS-51D. As mission specialist, she performed numerous scientific and medical experiments, including the toys in space demonstration and the first ultrasound of a human heart in space.
When she left NASA in 1997, Seddon served as assistant chief medical officer of the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville for 11 years and then a consultant to health care institutions.
She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2015.
No matter where Memphis native Beverly Robertson’s career took her, she always managed to rise to the top of her peers.
Starting as a part-time reservations agent at Holiday Inn Worldwide, Robertson moved up the corporate ladder and ended her 19-year career with the global hotel company as its director of communications.
She left the corporate world behind for nonprofits and became president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
There, she led a philanthropic effort to raise $43 million that funded a massive renovation and turned the museum, built alongside the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, into an internationally known destination.
Between career ventures, she was also an entrepreneur who started a marketing firm with her husband, Howard Robertson.
It was that varied career that led her to being named the first Black chief executive of the Greater Memphis Chamber in 2018. In that position, Robertson led the chamber’s first-ever effort to focus on community education in hopes of including Memphis’ poor and middle-class residents in the future financial growth of the city often reserved for the wealthiest business leaders.
Women’s sports icon
One of the world’s greatest coaches, Pat Summitt forever changed the game of basketball, elevated opportunities for women in sports, established a basketball dynasty and became an advocate for Alzheimer’s awareness.
As the University of Tennessee women’s basketball head coach for 38 seasons, Summitt led the Lady Vols to eight national championships and an overall record of 1,098-208.
She was the first NCAA basketball coach to reach 1,000 wins and holds the second-winningest record for any Division I men’s or women’s basketball coach. She coached the 1984 U.S. women’s basketball team to its first Olympic gold medal.
She retired in 2012 after her diagnosis with early-onset dementia. She raised awareness about Alzheimer’s disease through the Pat Summitt Foundation and the “We Back Pat” campaign.
President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and she was named the NCAA coach of the year seven times.
Summitt believed in coaching her players to become not just great athletes but also upstanding citizens. Her “Definite Dozen” code of conduct emphasized responsibility, hard work and discipline. She died in 2016 at age 64.
Human rights activist
Renata Soto is a Costa Rican-born social entrepreneur who has carved out a reputation as a fierce advocate for immigrant families in Tennessee.
Soto co-founded Conexión Américas in 2002, a nonprofit that helps immigrants adjust to life in the Nashville community by focusing on social, economic and civic integration.
During her tenure as the head of the organization, her work touched into politics, business, education and advocacy. She was the visionary behind the nationally recognized Casa Azafrán, a nonprofit collaborative that opened in 2012 and houses several organizations, including statewide immigrant groups like Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. And she played a pivotal role in President Barack Obama’s visit there in 2014.
She’s also the founder of the Mosaic Fellowship for leaders of color in Tennessee.
Nationally, Soto served for 10 years on the board of directors of UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. She served as board chair from 2015-2018.
After almost 25 years in the nonprofit sector, in 2020 Soto became a fellow at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
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