Section 7: Women’s Clubs Set Sights on Social Problems

In addition to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, women’s groups organized around volunteer work, current events, and the arts. In Knoxville, Elizabeth Crozier “Lizzie” French (1851-1926) established the Ossoli Circle, the region’s first women’s club, to discuss classical literature. As elite women became more enlightened about world affairs, many began to see more clearly the legal limitations that prevented them from having an active role in public policy decisions. And French, more than any other woman in East Tennessee, tapped into this pent up energy and directed it toward solving societal problems. In addition to her support for the Girls Industrial Home, French organized a local chapter of the Women’s Education and Industrial Union and championed other causes, including the establishment of a home for destitute and elderly citizens, the appointment of a police matron to supervise women who were held in the local jail, and the enrollment of women to the University of Tennessee. Eventually, French became Tennessee’s leading advocate for women’s rights.

Across Tennessee, women formed voluntary associations to accomplish specific tasks and to deal with societal difficulties, which, as the turn of the century approached, were on the rise in the wake of increasing urbanization. These women-led clubs spearheaded reform projects in education, industry, and health care, as well as other socially constructive areas such as pure food and drugs. Later, civic bodies funded and administered many of these projects, incorporating them into state-supported human welfare programs, some of which still exist, including veteran benefits, aid to dependent children, unemployment insurance, and the social security system.