Celebrating Nashville Women
To celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, we’re recognizing various female trailblazers, from suffragists to Opry stars, who have left their mark on history.
On August 18, 1920, Tennessee made history by becoming the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. In the book The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage, it was dubbed as one of “democracy’s finer triumphs,” and it all culminated in Nashville. Eight days later, on August 26, the amendment was formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution.
Lula C. Naff
Ryman Auditorium is “The Mother Church of Country Music,” and for decades, Lula C. Naff was its keeper. Before women were even granted the right to vote, Naff booked top talent and speakers for the Ryman, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Helen Keller, as secretary for a talent agency. Naff was a shrewd businesswoman who signed her name “L.C.” to ensure that she didn’t reveal her gender to industry colleagues. After the company she worked for dissolved, Naff took a leap of faith and leased the Ryman as an independent agent before finally being named manager by its board in 1920. When the Grand Ole Opry came knocking in 1943, Naff famously agreed to let the radio show set up shop in the Ryman, forever sealing her legacy in Nashville’s country music history.
The first woman to celebrate 60 years as an Opry member, Jean Shepard never missed a chance to shake things up. In her autobiography Down Through The Years, Shepard recounted a conversation that she had with Hank Williams early in her career. He remarked, “There ain’t many women in country music.” Her reply? “I know sir, I’m fixin’ to change that.” In the 1950s, Shepard asserted herself as the rare female solo act, helping pave the way for the likes of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton. Upon Shepard’s passing in 2016, Parton memorialized her in a video by saying, “I loved her unique style. The fact that she could yodel really set her apart from the other girls in the Grand Ole Opry.”
When well-to-do Dr. Rufus Fort took his children to watch barnstorming stunt pilots at the county fair, he made his four sons swear up and down that they’d never do something as dangerous as flying an airplane. It never occurred to him that his daughter, Cornelia Fort, might have sky-high ambitions of her own. She didn’t make that same promise to her dad, and it’s a good thing — because she would’ve broken it anyway. More of a tomboy than the high-society debutante, she would later become Nashville’s first female flight instructor and the second woman in Tennessee to receive her commercial pilots license. But Fort’s greatest honor was serving her country a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, flying new planes from factories to military bases during World War II. Tragically, on March 21, 1943, she was killed when her plane collided with another military aircraft. She was the first female pilot to die in the line of duty for the United States military.
Anne Dallas Dudley
There were several key players who helped Tennessee along its journey to becoming the “Perfect 36.” Among them was Anne Dallas Dudley, a Nashville native. Known for delivering captivating speeches, Dudley was the founding president of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League. In 1914, she organized the first suffrage parade in the South, which captured attention from the national suffrage movement. When the movement held its convention later that year, participants held sessions at Ryman Auditorium until the early morning hours. When it came time to ratify in 1920, they made the Hermitage Hotel their headquarters. Dudley is one of five women whose efforts are immortalized by the beautifully done Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument, which was unveiled in Centennial Park in 2016. “This was Tennessee’s greatest gift to our country,” says Paula Casey, cofounder of the TN Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail, of the ratification.
When 4-year-old Wilma Rudolph contracted polio that left one of her legs paralyzed, it was thought that the Tennessee native would never be able to walk again. But once a week throughout Rudolph’s childhood, her mother would make the 90-mile roundtrip drive to Nashville so that she could receive medical treatment. Defying all odds at age 20, Rudolph became known as the “Fastest Woman in the World” and the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. When the track star learned that her 1960 homecoming parade would be racially segregated, she fought for it to become the first integrated event in her small town of Clarksville, Tennessee and sought to pave the way for other young black athletes throughout the rest of her lifetime.
The first full-fledged female country star made a splash on the scene with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a response song that was inspired by fellow artist Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life.” Challenging double standards and wifely duties, the song was searing and controversial for its time. While it wasn’t originally allowed to be played on the Grand Ole Opry, it struck such a strong chord with women that it eventually made its way to the stage. “All of a sudden, she spoke to a whole psyche, a whole generation of women who probably didn’t know that they were not represented on the airwaves,” Emmylou Harris once said of Wells. From “girl singer” to Country’s Queen, Wells made a lasting impact on the music community.