Fighting Domestic Violence:  Women Begin to Seek Legislative Solutions to Societal Problems

In the 1870s many women theorized that domestic violence could be greatly reduced if alcohol was eliminated from society. Operating under the motto of “Home Protection”, women in the Midwest organized the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as a response to the evangelist Dwight L. Moody’s preaching against alcohol. This movement quickly spread across the state.

In 1883, Frances Willard, the president of the National WCTU, visited Knoxville and organized several chapters during her visit. Tennessee’s WCTU developed a legislative agenda immediately and its members became prolific letter writers on the organization’s ambitious agenda. The WCTU quickly became the largest female association in the United Statesand provided training in getting legislation passed which became useful to women in the fight for the right to vote. When the General Assembly lowered the age of consent in Tennessee to ten years of age, the WCTU fought against the measure. With the newly acquired legislative experience of its members came the realization that the right to vote would allow women to more effectively implement change. More than any other women’s organization, the WCTU was able to organize across the state to support prohibition in Tennessee. While these efforts were indicative of their ability to successfully mobilize and became the model for other female-led organizations, women’s suffrage, however, was far more controversial and was considered contrary to the core ideals of female submission reinforced at social, religious, and legal levels.

Other women’s groups organized around volunteer work, literature, music, current events, and the visual arts. Lizzie Crozier French established the Ossoli Circle, the first women’s club in East Tennessee, where the women discussed classical literature. More than any other woman in East Tennessee, French tapped the abundant energy of elite women and successfully directed much of that energy to solving societal problems. As women became more enlightened about current events and world affairs, many began to see the legal limitations that prevented them from having a more active role in public policy decisions. Eventually, French became the state’s leading advocate for women’s rights.

Above all, Lizzie Crozier French wanted to improve her local community. In addition to her support for the Girls’ Industrial Home, she founded the Women’s Education and Industrial Union in 1890 Other causes that French championed includes the establishment of a home for destitute, elderly citizens, support for the appointment of a police matron to supervise women who were held in the local jail, and support of making the University of Tennessee a co-educational institution so that women could enroll.

As cities across Tennessee moved into the future, urbanization led to noticeable social problems. Women formed associations to accomplish specific tasks and to deal with societal difficulties for people of all ages. Women’s organizations spearheaded reform projects in education, industry, health care, and other socially constructive areas such as pure food and drugs. Civic bodies later began to fund and administer many of these projects, incorporating them into the state-supported human welfare programs on which we still rely, such as veteran benefits, pensions for the widows of veterans, aid to dependent children, unemployment insurance, and the social security system.