The first women’s club in Knoxville and in Tennessee and the first club in the South to join the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Ossoli Circle was organized on November 20, 1885, when Lizzie Crozier French called twelve other women together to form a literary society intended to advance their intellectual and moral development through organization. At the suggestion of the first president, Mary Boyce Temple, they named it after New England intellectual and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850). From 1885 to 1890 the Tennessee Female Institute, where French was principal, served as the first home of the Ossoli Circle.
Mary B. Temple, educated in the library of her father, Judge Oliver P. Temple, and at Vassar, where she graduated in the class of 1877, led Ossoli Circle for its first five years. In 1886 she read before its members the manuscript of her Sketch of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, published in that year by the Ossoli Society. In this book, she suggested that the public “conversations” which Margaret Fuller had held for the women of Boston forty-six years earlier were “something akin to the aims of our own circle. They were entirely novel in their day.”
By 1893 membership in Ossoli Circle had grown to seventy-five. In 1896 Ossoli Circle issued a call for delegates from the state’s sixteen women’s clubs to meet in Knoxville and organize the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs. Ossoli accomplishments in the early twentieth century included the establishment of traveling libraries, an important activity until 1913; aid to mountain schools, begun in 1901; improvement of the laws of Tennessee that affected women, an activity led by the determined and energetic Lizzie Crozier French; the establishment of a state vocational school for girls, an idea that originated in Ossoli Circle; and the Ossoli Story Telling League for Children, organized in 1907.
In 1933 Ossoli Circle moved into its own clubhouse, located at 2511 Kingston Pike, near Tyson Park, where it remains today a social, cultural, and intellectual center for Knoxville women.