Raney: Sadie Watson, the first woman elected in Hamilton County government

Sadie Watson

Two years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, a woman ran for and won a political office in Hamilton County. Sadie Watson took the oath to become the first female register of deeds on Feb. 1, 1922. Initially she was appointed to fill the term of Willard Springfield, who left to become county postmaster. Watson had been with the office for more than 25 years and chief deputy in the register's office for last three.

In a Jan. 28 Chattanooga Times article, Springfield expressed full confidence in Watson's ability to perform the duties of register. "Miss Sadie Watson is the most thoroughly efficient and capable woman in the country. She is able to conduct any sort of business no matter of what magnitude. She knows every phase of work in the register's office and the patrons have every confidence in her ability. She has been so courteous and painstaking in her work that all who have had business with this office commend her most highly."

By February 1922, Sadie Watson had not yet made known her desire to run for the office in the August elections. Deciding to continue in the register's office, she ran as a Republican candidate and carried every district in the county, allowing her opponent, Randolph Howell, majorities in only 10 of the smaller precincts. Watson's vote count over Randolph Howell was 3,820, 1,196 of those being in Chattanooga. It is not known if gender played a role in the campaign as there is little campaign literature from that election. Since the gender of the voters was not recorded, it is not known how many women voted for Watson. However, her opponent mentioned the women in his remarks to the Times Aug. 5, 1922. He said, "I especially want to thank the many good ladies for their loyal support."

Sadie would not be the last female register. In 1926 Pearl Chivington was elected. Dorothy Brammer filled the office from 1954 to 1986. Sarah DeFriese was register from 1986 to 1994. Pam Hurst has been the register since 1994 and will retire effective Sept. 1. A new register will be elected in August.

Like many who came to Chattanooga after the Civil War, Sadie Watson was from the Midwest, in her case Ohio. The city advertised for "carpetbaggers" and welcomed them with open arms. She first appeared in the 1895 City Directory, where she and her relative, Mary Watson, were listed as living in Highland Park. She worked as a stenographer until 1899 when she became clerk in the county register's office. Never marrying, she lived with Mary for a number of years, died on Dec. 22, 1934, and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery. Her obituary in the Chattanooga Times the next day emphasized her work in the register's office and her work in the Woman's Auxiliary in the Highland Park Methodist Episcopal Church, where she was a charter member. Highland Park, later called St. Andrews United Methodist Church, closed in 2004.

Mr. Springfield placed the following praise in her obituary. "Miss Watson was one of the finest types of women I have ever known . She made for Hamilton County a public official who believed in giving value received for her salary She was faithful and energetic in administering the duties and she had a marvelous record for efficiency, doing her full duty by the taxpayers and the public. I can think of no official who had a more honorable, competent, efficient administration of a public office than she. Miss Watson was the soul of honor and led a most exemplary life and will be missed by her friends who are legion."

The duties of a register of deeds are not widely known. The Hamilton County Tennessee website states the office's mission: "The principal duty of the County Register's office is to record deeds and other instruments required or allowed to be filed by law; as stated in Tennessee Code 66-24-101. Writings eligible for registration include deeds, powers of attorney, mortgages, marriage settlements, plats, military discharges, etc. The Register is also responsible for collecting and accounting for all fees and taxes due as allowed by law."

Sadie Watson handled all those requirements with great accuracy and proficiency.

Suzette Raney is the archivist at the Chattanooga Public Library. For information on this and other Chattanooga history topics, call 423-643-7725 or email sraney@lib.chattanooga.gov. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.