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Famous Women Who've Shaped the State of Tennessee & the World
Photo Credit: Journal Communications/Jeff Adkins

Famous Women Who've Shaped the State of Tennessee & the World

Female powerhouses have become the faces of Tennessee restaurants, shops, music, distilleries, and sports.

It’s been 100 years since women earned the right to vote in the United States, and Tennessee played an important role in the country’s desire for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. In fact, on Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state to pass the amendment, providing the necessary three-fourths majority for an amendment to the Constitution. A century later, some female powerhouses have become the faces of Tennessee restaurants, shops, music, distilleries and sports. Check out these female-owned businesses.

THE CULINARY LEADERS 

The food world is seeing a new generation of women at the helm of the statewide culinary movement, though some like Mahasti Vafaie, who opened vegetarian favorite The Tomato Head on Market Square in Knoxville 30 years ago, were already making their mark. 
On the other side of the state, Felicia Willett debuted Felicia Suzanne’s in 2002 and immediately became a Memphis staple with her upscale spin on traditional Southern cooking (think: shrimp and grits, deviled eggs and short rib grilled cheese). 
In Nashville, Maneet Chauhan with her quartet of globally inspired restaurants – Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Tànsuǒ, The Mockingbird and Chaatable – has brought destination dining to town with plenty of foodies making the pilgrimage to Music City to sample creations of the celebrity chef they’ve seen on shows like the Food Network’s “Chopped.” 

THE FASHION DESIGNER 

One of Nashville’s favorite leading ladies Reese Witherspoon wears many fashionable hats. While her theatrical roots stemmed from acting, she’s now the owner of a production company, Hello Sunshine, that’s the force behind female-driven podcasts and TV shows like “Big Little Lies,” in addition to a purveyor of women’s clothing and accessories. Witherspoon founded her own line of feminine Southern fashion, Draper James, in 2015 with a brick-and-mortar location that followed in Nashville’s 12 South neighborhood later that year. On any given weekend, Draper James is full of bachelorette parties, mother-daughter duos and other gals simply looking to channel Witherspoon’s own timeless style – and maybe spot the actress herself, who routinely pops up in the shop unannounced. 

THE SPORTS ICONS 

Clarksville-born Pat Summitt garnered quite the legacy in her 64 years. The coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols for 38 seasons became college basketball’s winningest coach of all time when she retired, finishing her career with 1,098 wins – and left an indelible mark on women’s college basketball. She struggled with Alzheimer’s disease before succumbing to it in 2016. Summitt’s memory lives on throughout the state at Pat Head Summitt Legacy Plaza in Clarksville’s Liberty Park, alongside fellow sports pioneer and Clarksville Olympic gold-medal winner Wilma Rudolph’s statue, and at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville and the university’s Thompson-Boling Arena basketball court, aptly nicknamed “The Summitt.” 

THE ENTERTAINER 

Dolly Parton may be most well-known around the world as the voice behind mega-hits like “I Will Always Love You,” “9 to 5” and “Jolene;” but within Tennessee, she’s also recognized as a trailblazer of travel. Parton transformed Sevier County – where she was born – when she bought into Silver Dollar City in 1986 and rebranded it Dollywood, now a world-class theme park. The singer-entrepreneur would go on to open Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Park, DreamMore Resort and Spa, a handful of dinner shows such as the new Pirates Voyage and well-known Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and her latest venture – Wildwood Grove, a small child-friendly branch of Dollywood. 

THE PHILANTHROPIST 

The Rev. Becca Stevens made it her mission to take in women who have experienced trafficking, violence or addiction. In 1997, she started Magdalene, the genesis for the philanthropy now known as Thistle Farms. For more than 20 years, it has aided and empowered women by providing sanctuary through housing and meaningful jobs via employment at its pair of social enterprises. Thistle Farms’ Bath & Body and Home Goods are sold at shops throughout Tennessee, while The Café at Thistle Farms in Nashville is staffed by the nonprofit’s female survivors. 

THE NATURALIST 

The winner of a multitude of career awards within the park ranger ranks, Lisa Hendy, a Chattanooga native, became the first woman to be named Chief Ranger of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With a veritable smorgasbord of professional achievements under her belt – including certifications to be a paramedic, firefighter, aviation and technical swiftwater rescuer and various leadership positions – Hendy took the reins overseeing the Resource and Visitor Protection Division at the most visited national park in the country in 2019. 

THE SINGER 

Born in the tiny enclave of Nutbush in 1939, Anna Mae Bullock – more widely known as Tina Turner – rose to prominence through her vaulting voice and unending verve in the late 1950s, and continuing through her retirement in 2000. Housed in the restored schoolhouse from her childhood, the Tina Turner Museum at Flagg Grove School in Brownsville aggregates her career and showcases an astounding collection of artifacts from one of the most recognizable voices in music history. 

THE WINE, BEER & SPIRITS MAKERS & MASTERS 

Tennessee may traditionally be a whiskey state, but vino is trending, too, thanks to winemakers like Nikki Riddle of The Winery at Seven Springs Farm in Maynardville and Jo O’Cain of Century Farm Winery in Jackson. Beer has also seen an uptick, thanks to a handful of women. Jackalope Brewing Co. became the first female-owned brewery in Tennessee when Harvard grad and lawyer Bailey Spaulding opened it in Nashville in 2011. Jessica Upchurch left the world of education to get a master’s certificate in brewing science and operations before opening Happy Trails Brewing in downtown Sparta. In recent years, more than 30 new distilleries have cropped up throughout the state, and the Tennessee Whiskey Trail has seen a growing female representation. Some of the women making spirits include Alex Castle at Old Dominick Distillery, Miranda White at Knox Whiskey Works, Rachael Sykes at Nashville Craft, Fawn Weaver at Uncle Nearest and Nicole Austin at Cascade Hollow Distilling Co

THE HOSTESS 

Though Loretta Lynn has been an international country music star since the 1960s, she still maintains her humble roots as a coal miner’s daughter, living in the midst of the Hurricane Mills resort she has allowed visitors to experience for more than 30 years. Today, Loretta Lynn’s Ranch is a popular destination among RV travelers and motocross enthusiasts – it has an impressive network of trails and even hosts the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship annually – as well as equestrians who like to bring their horses along for rides. It’s also a prime family vacation destination with its authentic Western Town, museum, campfire singalongs, tubing, creek swimming and chuckwagon races.

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