Coming up on the last few days of Women’s History Month, it’s important to honor the women that came before us; to remember the things that they have done that enable us to be where we’re at today. However, at the University of Tennessee, female legacies are hard to come by, especially in terms of dedication.
The reason for this may be that for the first 100 years of our alma mater’s legacy, women were not included. The University of Tennessee opened in 1794; women weren’t eligible for enrollment until 1892.
But one doesn’t have to go far from campus to find a memorial to a woman who changed this. She’s just memorialized for a different reason.
If you go to the center of Market Square, you will find the women’s suffrage memorial, complete with three standing statues of Anne Dallas Dudley, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and Lizzie Crozier French. The efforts of these three women helped the state of Tennessee to be the 36th and deciding state in certifying the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920.
Before this campaign, French — a Knoxville native — fought for gender equality in other ways, including pushing for coeducation at the University of Tennessee. If you’re a female at the University of Tennessee, you can thank Lizzie Crozier French for that.
In 1889, she delivered an “aggressive” speech before the State Teacher’s Association in support of a measure for co-education. In the speech, she advocated for those who have a hard time speaking for themselves, and called for the members of the board to fully fulfill their claimed position of “protectors of women,” especially in her final paragraph:
“It is the woman of talent, push, and brass, if you please, that can come out of a public school and succeed; but it is the modest, timid woman that we would ask you to consider. You may admire us as little as you please; but take that modest woman and lift her up to a higher place and we will thank you for it. Leave us out; show your appreciation and modesty. They have gone on being humble and modest, what have they gained? As soon as they begin to be aggressive, they find some reward. You don’t want us to change laws, change them yourselves. I have no desire to change them if you will make them all right. I suppose the resolutions of the committee will embody what we have to say, but my desire has been to ask you to look at the law; and don’t say you are a protector of woman without acting it. Make yourselves, not the nominal, but the real protector of woman, and don’t let us say any longer that woman has no position.”
Although the measure wasn’t passed until 1892 after some pushback from the superintendent at the time, French’s rhetoric was strong and passionate, and there are two things to take from it that are still applicable today, as a way of honoring her legacy.
Firstly, that to be successful in social activism, we must advocate and fight for all voices to be heard, even the modest and timid ones. To only speak for oneself is not to be a true leader.
And secondly, if one’s opponent claims that their actions are in the name of something such as “protection,” don’t disagree; accept what they say, and then further question their position. Only by questioning what they’re protecting, whom they’re protecting it from and why they believe such thing may need protecting can you change the mind of others.
JoAnna Brooker is a junior in journalism and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.