Hattie Love: the woman we elected to local government, and then forgot

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

On the City Council ballot, for the first time I can remember, there are six women on the regular ballot, plus one certified write-in candidate. This election presents the prospect that three or even four women may be elected to City Council all at once.

One of those candidates recently asked me if what she’d heard was true, that only seven women had served in City Council in Knoxville history. No, of course not, I answered. I’m sure it’s more than that. There have been women on City Council as long as I can remember.

I looked into it, and I was right. In all of Knoxville history, there have indeed been more than seven women on City Council. There have been eight. There’s one that no one remembers. This column is mainly about her.

Although we’ve had at least one woman on Council for the last half-century or so—sometimes two or three—we are, as of this writing, still in the single digits. Meanwhile, since the founding of Council in 1815, there have been literally hundreds of individual men on the body.

There’s some misleading math there, in that for more than half of Knoxville City Council history, women weren’t allowed to vote, and were therefore unlikely to run for office—and during much of that all-male time, Councils were huge and terms were very short, often just one year.

Later, in the late 20th century, we encountered the opposite phenomenon, as several Council members, male and female, served a couple of decades. During that time, there were fewer individuals serving on Council. Fewer men, fewer women.

Now we have term limits, we’re turned up the rate of individual humans taking seats at that long counter.

But it still seems remarkable to me: four new female Council members elected in 2017 would represent one-third of all the women ever elected to City Council in Knoxville history.

The first female City Council member old-timers remember is former tennis champ Bernice O’Connor, who was first elected in the 1960s and was on Council on and off for 15 years. I’ve found that several folks assume she was the first one ever.

However, there was one lone woman before that, almost forgotten. One woman was elected to City Council in 1937, celebrated as the first woman to hold the office. Her name was Hattie Love.

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Born in Knoxville in 1895, Hattie Love grew up in East Knoxville, attended Knoxville High but left before graduation to go to work. She worked first in retail, for a spell as a seamstress at Miller’s. Then just after World War I, she attended Knoxville Business College and found work for a few years as a journalist, first for the Journal, then the Sentinel. People knew her best as a city court clerk, an office she held for a dozen years, but she was also a businesswoman, partners with her brother in an ice-cream company called Galo, which once had two locations, the main one on North Sixth.

Then she achieved a distinction no longer within the grasp of folks who have no high school (or college) degree: She became an attorney. At night, after working with court papers and ice cream, she attended the private law school run by John R. Neal, the severely eccentric former UT professor who had led the defense team for John Scopes at the famous Dayton monkey trial. A formidable presence in Knoxville between the wars, Squire Neal produced lawyers with unusual skills.

Love passed the bar and got her license, but never tried a case. “I took up law not with the idea of becoming a lawyer,” she said, “but because a person in the business world would constantly have use for it.”

She lived in North Knoxville, in a house on Ashwood Place, but was fond of the outdoors and spent every available weekend at her cottage on family property in the mountains of Polk County, in the southeastern corner of the state.

She was involved in several women’s organizations, and took a leadership role in her Methodist church, where she was also a choir director and known for her singing voice. At public events in the 1920s, she was sometimes the entertainment.

She co-founded the Knoxville Pilot Club, a community-betterment organization involved in everything from park improvement to “cancer control.” She was once described as “a plump, quick-moving person with brown eyes sparkling behind spectacles she had worn since early years.”

In the 1930s, during disputes about the very structure of city government, Love became an advocate for the city-manager style, instituted in the 1920s, and considered a progressive step forward by many. Taking the day-to-day business of government farther from partisan politics seemed to keep city government cleaner. But it was threatened with a state Legislature move to ban it.

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Women had had the vote for more than 15 years, but few Knoxville women had run for public office. One early notable exception was legendary suffragist Lizzie Crozier French herself, who had run for City Council in 1923, at the age of 72. She got almost 2,000 votes, more than some male candidates, but not nearly enough to win an at-large seat. Another was Annie Davis, who actually was elected to the state Legislature to represent Knox County for one term in 1925.

City Council, often contentious and sometimes mean, remained an all-male bastion. “I have thought for some time that there ought to be a woman on City Council,” Hattie Love said in 1937. “The city government concerns woman as much as it does men, and women ought to have a representative on that governing body.”

In October 1937, just a month before the election, she announced her candidacy for one of five at-large seats. She was 42, single, and ready for a fight. She stood against corruption, which was as common in 1930s Knoxville as soot, and favored raising the hiring standards for city employees. And she was in favor of the city cooperating with President Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, without creating an independent power company, as some conservatives favored.

She ran a thrifty campaign. Her friends told Hattie she needed a new hat to get elected. She declined to do so, citing her devotion to economy. As she formally reported later, she did not solicit, or spend, a single penny on her month-long campaign.
She was popular, especially with women’s groups, the subject of several rallies at the Andrew Johnson Hotel and over WNOX radio. That November, in a field of 15 candidates for the at-large seats, she received 4,505 votes, the second-highest tally of the entire field.

Her election in 1937 was hailed by statewide women’s organizations at which she was already well-known. She served for two years on a colorful 11-member Council that included feisty low-tax spoiler Lee Monday; Alabama-born oil man Fred Allen, soon to be mayor; and World War I hero Gen. Cary Spence.

She took a hand in several issues, especially the power agreement that resulted in the Knoxville Utilities Board. And she led the effort to rename the broad street leading to the Henley Bridge, Henley Street. It was an old name for a quiet residential street that had been there before, but things had gotten complicated since the construction of the bridge eight years earlier, and for a while there were two South Broadways, one big, and one little.

Her most important and lasting effort was in the field of air-pollution control. After giving a speech about Knoxville’s infamously filthy air, she became chairman of a committee that drew up the city’s smoke ordinance, the sooty city’s first effective local air-pollution abatement initiative. It required participation from industry, but citizens said they could tell a difference.

The strangest incident of her term on Council involved a controversial Socialist speaker. David Lasser was president of an organization called the Workers Alliance. He wanted to speak on the subject of the Right to Work. Lasser was a remarkable fellow in several respects. In 1931, he’d written a nonfiction book called The Conquest of Space, a rare influential book advocating the real prospect of space exploration. Science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke later recalled Lasser’s book as his most-important inspiration.

But during the Depression, Lasser became an advocate for the idea that a government owed each of its citizens a good job.

In May 1939, Lasser wanted to speak on Knoxville’s Market Square, where the old Market Hall contained a big public auditorium. There was one problem: He couldn’t pay the fee. The city charged $10, the equivalent of almost $200 in modern cash, to rent the hall for an evening.

As was a custom, City Council members allocated $1 each, on the principle that it promoted freedom of speech. Remarkably, some notably conservative members of Council chipped in to pay for the Socialist’s speech. Hattie Love, hardly one of the more conservative members, refused. She wouldn’t ban him from speaking, she said, but she didn’t want to pay for him. She had information, she said, that the Workers Alliance was a Communist organization.

Nine Council members and an unidentified tenth pitched in to rent the hall for Lasser. His talk, which turned out to be mainly a defense of the Workers Alliance from charges of Communism, drew some hecklers, and it was overshadowed by the fact that the American flag behind him was hung backwards from the way most folks were used to seeing it.

To some progressives, especially TVA employees who had assured Lasser that Knoxville was an enlightend Southern city that would greet him warmly, the incident was embarrassing. But a few months later, as Congress condemned him as a subversive, Lasser himself resigned as president of the Workers Alliance, charging that his own organization was infiltrated with Communists.

Did Hattie Love have some inside information—or was her stand intended to prove to Knoxville voters that she wasn’t a liberal extremist, herself?

She stood for re-election six months later, and likely expected to be on Council for at least another term. But there were new candidates and more voters. Although she got more votes than she’d received two years earlier—5,103—it was 41 votes shy of the cut that would have allowed her to rejoin her colleagues. City Council became an all-men’s club again.

She returned to her old job at city court clerk, then worked as a secretary to the chief of police in later life—all the while keeping her job as secretary and treasurer of Galo Ice Cream. She remained a popular speaker in the 1940s, on subjects from smoke abatement to parliamentary procedure, but was never elected to another public office.

She developed a stomach disorder and died at age 56. It had once been important to her that women serve on Knoxville’s City Council, but she did not live to see another. After her departure from the assembly, City Council remained a men-only club for almost 30 years.

Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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