Every June at the Ignite Women’s Leadership Summit, a deserving woman becomes the recipient of the Lizzie Crozier French Women’s Leadership Award, or The Lizzie. Who is Lizzie French and why is there an award named for her?
Residents of East Tennessee may be familiar with the Woman Suffrage Memorial on Knoxville’s Market Square. The statue is three women suffragists, one for each of Tennessee’s three grand divisions. Lizzie, a Knoxville native, represents East Tennessee and stands at the front of the statue.
Lizzie was born in 1851 and grew up with four sisters and in a house filled with books. Her politician father encouraged his daughters to read, to be educated, and to speak up. When Lizzie was 21, she married William French. They had a son, also named William, but within 18 months of their marriage, Lizzie became a widow and single mother. She never remarried.
Neither that great loss, or the challenge of being a single mother, stopped Lizzie. She was a woman who saw a need and filled it, saw injustice and challenged it. Throughout her life, Lizzie broke barriers, exemplified great courage, and became a woman of “firsts.” The Lizzie is designed to commemorate her courage, her activism, and her determination.
Lizzie traveled a lot, gathering ideas for reform and improvement. In her mid 30s, she established the Ossoli Circle, a literary and charitable organization that was also Tennessee’s first women’s club. Around the same time, she and her sisters reopened the East Tennessee Female Institute where she served as principal for five years. When the Institute lost its lease, Lizzie refocused her energies into political activism.
Between 1889 and 1892, Lizzie led the successful charge to make the University of Tennessee a co-ed institution. She also established the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, whose goal was to promote social reform. That group advocated for the City of Knoxville to name a police matron to oversee female inmates and keep them separate from male inmates. As an advocate for this reform, Lizzie became the first woman to speak before the City Council. The outcome was that Knoxville was the first city in the South to create this position. Later, Lizzie stepped before the Tennessee General Assembly (the first woman to do so) to successfully advocate for a separate prison for women and children.
In 1912, as the first woman to address the Tennessee Bar Association, Lizzie gave a fiery speech challenging the state’s legal bias toward women. She was extremely active in the suffrage movement and served as president of the Tennessee Suffrage Association, leading women to write letters-to the editor of newspapers across the state. In 1923, three years after women won the right to vote, Lizzie became the first woman to run for Knoxville City Council, but she was not successful.
When she was 75-years-old, Lizzie travelled to Washington D.C. with a two-fold purpose. One was to ensure that a bill supporting working women was introduced to Congress. The other was to help furnish a Tennessee Room for the National Women’s Party. Lizzie died during her trip to D.C. and is today buried in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery.
Lizzie Crozier French was a role model, a tireless advocate, and a courageous, forward-thinking woman who loved her community. No wonder there is a statue and also a woman’s leadership award that honor her.