TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES


A woman’s right to vote
"The story of Lizzie Crozier French"


Most modern newspapers across America have a section in them dedicated to the voices of the citizens within the communities they serve. These sections known generally as "Letters to the Editor" are one of the most important pages found in newspapers and have led to momentous changes in American society.
The most powerful documented display from the pens of citizens can be found in the women’s suffrage movement of the late 20th and early 21st century. Both men and women supported the right to vote for women in America and often found themselves with few supporters in the mainstream society – forcing them to carry their messages directly to the people and gradually winning their support after years of trying.
The original Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was drafted by noted activist Susan B. Anthony in 1878 and was introduced in every succeeding congressional session to no avail. The amendment, however, gave suffrage groups across the nation a rallying point from which they formed state campaigns, secured thousands of signatures on petitions, and traveled throughout the nation lobbying legislators and federal representatives to gain their support. In addition, they took to the editorial pages of newspapers alerting citizens to the amendment and encouraging them to contact their representatives.
Unknown to Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists, the impact of a woman from Tennessee would become the force to be reckoned with as she would lead a movement in the state that would change the minds of those die-hard opponents to women voting or serving on a jury. Her ability with pen and the spoken word would unknowingly become an icon of the Suffrage Movement in America. Her efforts would reach far beyond the borders of Tennessee and into the very halls of the nation’s capitol.



Lizzie Crozier was born in Knoxville on May 7, 1851 to Congressman and local attorney John H. Crozier. While little information is known about her mother, Lizzie Crozier was one of three girls born into the family.
She was raised in the prim and proper fashion of the day, but her father was adamant that his children receive a proper education. Lizzie Crozier was educated at the Convent of Visitation at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. and at a private Episcopal School in Columbia, TN. She developed a love for education early on in her life and, when not in school, spent her time reading, writing, and engaged in personal study projects. Her father’s work as a congressman and attorney also gave her a unique insight into politics and law and Lizzie Crozier absorbed everything she could from him.
At the age of 21, she met and fell in love with local businessman William B. French with whom she had a son. Although much in love, disaster struck Lizzie Crozier French, as she was known, within two years of her marriage when her husband suddenly passed away leaving her to raise their son William H. French on her own.
Lizzie French was not a lady to be still for long and she soon began establishing herself as a teacher of note at the Knoxville Female Academy and volunteering her time to various community projects.
When she wasn’t teaching, French traveled as much as she could and continued her own studies. Following her 1884 attendance at the Sorosis Club in New York City, where women from the community met to discuss literature, politics, and assist each other in their studies, French was inspired to return to Knoxville and form one of her own in the city.
In 1885, Lizzie French, along with her sisters Lucy and Mary Crozier founded a successful school for "young ladies and children" at the Knoxville Female Academy, where the sisters developed an educational curriculum that taught children more than just the basics of reading and writing. They did so well that the school became known throughout the city and was one of the most popular among parents and students for its approach to education.
On Nov. 20 of that same year, French invited 12 women to the Knoxville Academy to organize a literary group like the one she had visited in New York. The 12 women who chartered the organization that night chose the name the Ossoli Circle, in honor of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, who was regarded at that time as one of the foremost literary woman in America. The founding wasn’t considered big news for the city, but those 12 women had organized what would become the oldest federated women’s club in the South.
While French fueled the organization forward with projects aimed towards providing educational opportunities for women of all ages in the city, she also continued her teaching career with the special academy she had founded with her sisters. Among the most popular subject taught by Lizzie C. French at the school was public speaking, which French had learned well from her congressman father and had studied in her own educational career. Teaching it as a course, however, was difficult as there were practically no textbooks available. French wasn’t one to be discouraged and promptly wrote a book entitled: "A Manual of Elocution", which was published two years later in 1887 and served as the textbook for her classes on the subject.
In 1890, French and her sisters ended the school, which allowed her to devote herself full-time to working for women’s rights in Tennessee and, through the years that followed, earned a reputation as one of the state’s most outspoken people on the subject, especially in regards to working conditions being faced by women in the state’s growing industries. She earned a reputation as a writer with her letters to the editor and spoke in public wherever she got the opportunity to express her views on the rights of women in America.
Before the women’s suffrage movement started gaining steam in the late 20th century, French would often shock the crowds she spoke to with comments such as: "I wish I could stand here and say ‘Fellow Citizens,’ but since I am not accepted as a citizen by the government, I must say Citizens and Fellow Servants..." By 1895, the Knoxvillian was becoming a fixture in local and state government and earning recognition from other women activists across the nation, who admired her unwavering courage to break the stereotypes of women in America and voice her beliefs in public and print.
In 1896, French took another step forward when she founded the "Women’s Educational and Industrial Union" and used her position in the organization to become the first woman to address the Knoxville City Council appealing for the appointment of a Police Matron– a female police officer for women offenders who would assist in the care and treatment of the females arrested by police. She convinced the City Council of the need for one and filled the position herself for several months until the city could hire a permanent matron.
While that particular organization was eventually merged into other local charitable societies, French capitalized on her success with the Knoxville City Council to become the first woman to address the Tennessee General Assembly lobbying on behalf of efforts to establish a separate prison for women and children in the state of Tennessee. Her voice and those supporting her were heard and the state eventually saw to the establishment of both institutions.
Throughout her tireless crusade for women’s rights, Lizzie French continued her work with her first organization and the Ossoli Circle as it was known became regarded not only as one of the South’s most preeminent literary societies for women, but also for its expanding charitable and educational programs that reached from the valley to the mountains of East Tennessee providing assistance and care to those families that needed it.
Although becoming known throughout the South and the nation as a powerful public speaker, Lizzie French was a firm believer in the power of the citizens’ pen and that the written word carried more impact and a greater distance. In 1911, she organized the Writer’s Club in Knoxville to empower other women to express their beliefs and opinions through letter writing campaigns to editors and supporters. The organization eventually became the Knoxville branch of the League of American Penwomen.
The following year saw Lizzie French elected president of the Tennessee Suffrage Association, where she began her all-out fight to see that the Susan B. Anthony Amendment - now more than 30 years old and regarded as a dead piece of legislation in Congress - was added to the United States Constitution.
The bill and the labors of women like Lizzie Crozier French were having some impact on women’s rights in America. Some states had began giving women greater control over their property, a few had made divorce easier for those in abusive relationships, and women were slowly gaining access to the courts in their ability to sue for damages. French wasn’t one to sit still and knew her best strategy as president of the state’s suffrage organization would be to take her message straight to the Tennessee Bar Association. As the daughter of an attorney and an out-spoken leader in the women’s movement, she wasn’t at all intimidated by the men seated in front of her. When the first woman in Tennessee history to address the organization took the podium, she delivered what many scholars believe today was one her greatest messages stating her position on the state’s law forbidding women from voting.
"Bullets and ballots are not companions;" said French, "but ballots in the hands of people are supposed to be a substitute for bullets in the hands of hired agents...Thanks be to God that in giving women the crown of motherhood he made her the giver not the taker of life. Woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot than she is a producer not a destroyer of life."
Her speech was put into the record of the Tennessee Bar Association as an "Address on Women’s Rights" and became a much quoted theme in the South’s growing number of suffrage groups. French continued her work in Knoxville founding and serving as president of the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Society and becoming a leading member of the National Women’s Party.
While the cause of women’s suffrage took up much of her time, it never dissuaded her from what she felt were her other obligations as a citizen. She continued her interest in teaching serving as an officer in the state’s Parent-Teacher Association, worked as a volunteer at St. John’s Episcopal Church, and continued her supporting role in the Ossoli Circle.
Lizzie Crozier French and her colleagues began to see a thaw in Congress in 1919 when the suffragists held their annual meeting in St. Louis, MO. The Susan B. Anthony Amendment was up for a vote for the 22nd time and the suffragists felt they had swayed more than enough congressmen to give it a fighting chance in the House. They knew that passage in the house would only be half of the fight as making the legislation a Constitutional Amendment would take a mandatory 36 states to ratify it.
The organization was successful as by late Spring of that year, the legislation passed both Houses of Congress. Six states ratified the 19th Amendment immediately and the suffragists took their fight to the states securing passage in 29 of them. Six Southern states rejected the Amendment to the Constitution with seven states left to act on it.
The other Southern states Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana were adamantly opposed as were Connecticut and Vermont, which placed the battle for ratification in Delaware and Tennessee. In June, word came down that the state of Delaware had defeated the bill and the nation’s eyes turned towards Tennessee.
The state’s suffrage organizations sprang into action setting up headquarters in the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. The anti-suffrage organization set up shop in the Hermitage Hotel and the battle in Tennessee became one of symbolism with the suffragists choosing a yellow rose and the anti-suffragists organization choosing a red one to symbolize their stance on the issue.
The unofficial "War of the Roses" began on August 7, 1919 when legislators began arriving by train for the special session. There was more to the issue than just giving women the right to vote and legislators were faced with four lobby groups hitting them at the train station handing out roses representing their respective sides and beginning arguments that would wage throughout the entire session.
Among the most persuasive argument brought to the representatives came from the liquor interests of the state, who had funded much of the anti-suffrage movement in Tennessee. Railroads and other industries had also contributed heavily to the anti-suffrage movement as they did not want to have to "buy off any more votes than they were already doing." The arguments of non-liquor industries generally fell on deaf ears with the legislators, but the success and influence of Carrie Nation and the Women’s Temperance Union led many legislators to believe the liquor industry’s claims that if women gained the right to the ballot, they would almost assuredly vote in prohibition, which could prove disastrous for the state.
On Aug. 9, 1919, the special session of the Tennessee General Assembly got underway with Governor A.H. Roberts urging ratification of the Amendment. Although 68-years-old, Knoxvillian Lizzie Crozier French was in the middle of the fight in Nashville and using her influence to help sway the vote towards passage. After numerous debates, delays, swings of votes this way or the other, the bill finally passed the Senate on Friday, Nov. 13 by a margin of 25-4 with Sen. McFarland abstaining.
The bill was then handed down to the House for review the following Monday. Fearful that votes would be lost to the powerful interests lobbying against passage, the suffragists borrowed a page from the anti-suffrage groups and kept close contact with House members throughout the weekend.
For three days in the House, representatives swayed back and forth. Speaker of the House Joe Hanover, who supported the amendment reported that both sides were paying legislators for their votes, but by Wednesday a final vote was ready. A test vote to table the resolution lost on a 48-48 tie and – knowing another tie vote would defeat the bill – the anti-Suffragist immediately called for another vote to kill the amendment in Tennessee. Unknown to the other House members at the time was that a letter to Niota, TN Representative Harry Burn arrived from his mother that very morning urging her son to vote in favor of the amendment.
As a roll call vote was done again in the House, Rep. Harry Burn voted "Aye" to the resolution – giving it a 49-47 majority. At that time, Rep. Seth Walker changed his vote to "Aye" also and made a motion to reconsider. The vote long-sought by Lizzie Crozier French had finally come to fruition in a way she had never dreamed of happening in her home state of Tennessee.
On August 25, 1919, Tennessee certified the ratification becoming the 36th state and making the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution the law of the land giving women the right to vote.
Lizzie C. French and the Suffragists across America cheered passage of the 19th Amendment and French joined women across Tennessee in casting their first votes that following November . In addition, French went on to help found the Knoxville chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Lizzie C. French remained an active member of the Knoxville community and made a bid for City Council in 1923, but was defeated. Three years later the 75-year-old Lizzie C. French traveled to Washington, D.C. to help the National Women’s Party furnish a room in honor of the Tennessee suffragists and also secure introduction of a bill in Congress to benefit working women in America. On May 14, 1926, while still in Washington, D.C., the Tennessean quietly passed away.
Her body was returned to her hometown in Knoxville where she was laid to rest in the City’s Old Gray Cemetery – leaving behind a legacy that is still felt to this day.



This year the Ossoli Circle, which Lizzie Crozier French founded, celebrated its 116th anniversary as an organization. It is still regarded as one of the city’s most recognized philanthropic organizations and remains involved in numerous local and regional charities. In 1926, the organization placed a portrait of their founder in the National Women’s Party Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to honor her contributions to women’s suffrage in America.
The National Woman’s Party still exists today in Washington, D.C. and is continually active in issues of concern to women around the world.
Lizzie French’s formation of Suffrage organizations in Knoxville led to Tennessee’s first chapter of the League of Women Voters being founded in the city. The organization’s influence has, through the years, become a powerful voice in American politics.
While the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Tennessee has been studied extensively, there is very little biographical information on Lizzie C. French available to the general public nor is she mentioned in Tennessee history textbooks.
"L.C. French was one of the most prominent women in American politics in her day," said local biographer Sylvia Lynch, "and considering the era in which she accomplished this is a tribute to her strength of character. She was a persuasive speaker and writer who exerted considerable influence on Knoxville and Tennessee through her speeches and letters in regards to Women’s Suffrage and creating a better quality of life in the state. Her life certainly deserves study as she was someone who truly benefited her community at large. While she is notably recognized as one of the leading founders of the Women’s Suffrage movement in Tennessee, her contributions as a writer and teacher are largely overlooked by historians and it was in these areas that she made some of her greatest achievements."