Her name was Nettie Cate Hoskins. But good luck finding anything about her online or in an archive other than a grave or a listing in a genealogy file. Unless, of course, you search for her by her husband’s name. And then, one after another, page after page, citations of her appear in the Knoxville News-Sentinel as Mrs. Sherwood Johnston.
In this, the 100th anniversary year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it’s time she was known by her name. Because she was the first woman in Knoxville to run for city council. And, full disclosure, she was my great grandmother.
I never knew her. She died just a few years before I was born, but she practically raised my father, Mike Kinnane, and his brother, Joe. Their mother, Mary, was busy working in Oak Ridge during World War II while their father was serving in the 29th Infantry. My great uncle, Sherwood Johnston Jr., put together a family history 40 years ago that tells bits and pieces of Nettie Cate’s story.
Born in 1883 in Anderson County, she was a descendant of several early settlers to East Tennessee, including Jesse Hoskins Sr., John Cate Sr. and Isaac Newman, whose grandson was one of the founders of Carson-Newman University. She was orphaned by age 9. She and her siblings were split up amongst relatives. Eventually she found some stability in the home of her mother’s younger sister, Tennessee Hoskins, spent two years studying at Carson-Newman, then eventually settled down at the ripe old age of 23 when she married my great grandfather and commenced to bearing seven children.
Despite having a large family to care for, including a special needs child with cerebral palsy, and a husband who was mostly away (Southern Railroad engineer), Nettie Cate was very active in her community. She was involved in teaching classes on mission work, the PTA, the Ossoli Circle, League of Women Voters, to name just a handful of her community involvements. Though my father said she was known to have some wine about the house at Christmas, she was also a member of the Women’s Temperance Union.
My father recalled that there was no slacking off going to church (Broadway Baptist, First Baptist, Smithwood Baptist) on Sundays, and that if he or his brother complained, “Granny” would quip “I’m not raising any heathens in this house.” There was no slacking off school either. He said in 12 years of public schooling, he missed just three days. On one of those occasions, he tried to hobble out to play with other kids in the neighborhood. He was told, “Mike, if you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to go out to play. Back to bed.”
At the time of her run for the city council in 1935, the family lived on Fremont Street in Old North Knoxville and attended Broadway Baptist Church where she taught a women’s class of 50. A Nov. 7, 1935, profile in The Knoxville News-Sentinel noted “entirely feminine, she yet has the directness and objectivity of a successful businessman.” While that thought is an eye-roller for my generation, the KNS was ahead of its time. Of the paper’s five endorsements for at-large city council seats, Nettie Cate was one of them.
“I’ve always had a keen interest in other people and their welfare,” she said, in explaining why she agreed to run. “My great grandfather and my grandfather were preachers, and my father was a country doctor. So, I guess that attitude is inherited. I get a tremendous pleasure out of helping other people. As a member of Council, I would have a chance to serve my whole community.” KNS 11/07/1935
Indeed, Granny. Indeed.
(Acknowledgement to the digital archives of The McClung Collection at The East Tennessee Historical Society)
Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.