Legendary Women in Chattanooga History
As you’re swinging into springtime in our fair city of Chattanooga, Old Hamilton Bush has been rummaging through his archives on a quest to answer your inquires about local lore. The result is a few fresh tidbits from the history books, printed here for your reading pleasure!
In honor of International Women’s Day coming up on March 8, can you tell me about some legendary women in Chattanooga’s history?
ChattaRosie the Riveter
It would be an honor! I’ll start with famous suffragist Abby Crawford Milton, who was born into a well-known political family in Georgia in 1881. She moved to Chattanooga in her early 20s after marrying newspaperman and politician George Milton. While her husband kept busy managing the Chattanooga News, Milton attended the Chattanooga College of Law. She believed that legal training would give her the credibility she needed to be a strong voice in the battle for women’s right to vote – and her instincts would later prove right. Meanwhile, she managed to give birth to three girls from 1913 to 1917!
In the hot summer of 1920, during the height of the battle for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Milton, then the leader of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, spent the entire month of August in Nashville lobbying members of the general assembly for the vote. She and her fellow suffragists based their efforts out of the Hermitage Hotel, which, according to Milton, “was the scene of many fist fights in the lobby…no woman would dare venture down there…the mezzanine of that hotel had been bought up by the antis (anti-suffragists).”
Milton returned to Chattanooga after victory was secured – the amendment was ratified in Tennessee on August 18, 1920, the measure passed 49 to 47 – but her work on behalf of women certainly wasn’t over. She became the first state president of the League of Women Voters and continued to push for reforms to benefit women. She also campaigned for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Tennessee Valley Authority. She even ran for the Tennessee State Senate in 1930 (unfortunately, her efforts to obtain the vote that time were unsuccessful).
You can’t talk about game-changing women in Chattanooga without also mentioning Emma Rochelle Wheeler (1882-1957), the first African American woman to become a doctor in Chattanooga. Wheeler grew up in Gainesville, Fla., where, at the age of 6, she befriended a female physician who sparked her interest in medicine. She went on to graduate from the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville at the age of 17, and she later moved to Nashville where she could attend Walden University’s Meharry Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical College. She graduated in 1905, and during commencement week, married fellow doctor George Wheeler.
The newly married couple moved to Chattanooga where they set up a joint practice on East Main Street in order to serve the impoverished, segregated African American community. Ten years later, Emma Wheeler purchased two lots with her own savings in order to open Walden Hospital, a three-story brick facility with 30 beds and nine private rooms. She and her husband also opened a nursing school at the hospital, and records show that the entire operation proved so profitable that all of the loans and mortgages used to establish the facility were paid off in three years. Its doors stayed open until 1953.
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