99 Years Ago Today on July 20, 1920: Alice Mary Robertson (1854-1931) elected by Americans as 2nd Congresswoman in the United States
Americans recently have been inundated with the viral discord between the Executive Office and the freshman “squad,” of congresswomen, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib) all democrats, all born in the United States, except Ilhan Omar who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. So, I thought I’d look back into history to see if and when other women were outspoken about the rights and treatment of minority residents within our borders. And, how or whether our country’s leaders broached the issues with them, their colleagues, and the public.
Alice Robertson, followed the first woman, Jeannette Rankin, (her polar opposite), into congress. Robertson was colorful, quotable, conservative, and hostile to the women’s suffrage movement and its many leaders. She was born on January 2, 1854, in the Tullahassee Mission in the Creek Nation Indian Territory, now the State of Oklahoma. Her parents, William Schenck Robertson and Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson, were missionary school teachers committed to assisting the displaced Cherokee. (Sound familiar, yet? Not to worry, there are several more instances where this freshman congresswoman publicly stands her ground similar to today’s progressive freshmen congresswomen. )
After attending Elmira College in New York from 1873 to 1874, Robertson took a job as the first female clerk at the Indian Office at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Making a brief stop in Pennsylvania in 1879 to work at the Carlisle Indian School, Robertson returned to Oklahoma. In 1885, she founded the Minerva Home—a boarding school to train Native–American girls in domestic skills. This institution later became Henry Kendall College (the present-day University of Tulsa).1
Robertson’s missionary work put her within a network of progressive reformers and opened the door to a career in politics. In 1891, she earned the admiration of rising GOP politician Theodore Roosevelt, who later described her as “one of the great women of America.” In 1905 then– President Roosevelt appointed Robertson the postmistress of Muskogee, Oklahoma, where she served until 1913. In addition to her patronage job, Robertson operated a 50–acre dairy farm with an on-site café, which she named “Sawokla,” based on an Indian word meaning “gathering place.” Both the farm and the café became a social magnet, drawing politicians, former students, journalists, and local folk. During World War I, she endeared herself to many servicemen by distributing food to soldiers in transit through the local train station. In 1916, the GOP nominated her to run for county superintendent of public instruction, but Robertson lost.2
Robertson ran as a Republican for an eastern Oklahoma congressional seat in 1920, challenging a three-term Democratic incumbent, William Wirt Hastings. Trained as a lawyer, Hastings was a formidable opponent who had long ties to the Cherokee Nation; however, Robertson believed she could best represent the interests of her prospective constituents. “There are already more lawyers and bankers in Congress than are needed,” Robertson said. “The farmers need a farmer, I am a farmer. The women need a woman to look after their new responsibilities. The soldier boys need a proven friend. I promise few speeches, but faithful work. You can judge my past performances.” Robertson campaigned actively only in the confines of the Sawokla Café, where she sidled up to tables of voters and talked politics over a bowl of soup. Lacking coverage from local newspapers, she bought space in the classifieds to reach voters. In a year in which the GOP did well nationally at the polls, Robertson was part of a Republican groundswell in Oklahoma that unseated three Democratic incumbents and made the state’s House delegation majority Republican. With support from farmers and veterans, she narrowly defeated Hastings, by 228 votes out of nearly 50,000 cast.3
In the 67th Congress (1921–1923), Robertson was rewarded for her lifelong work on Native–American welfare with a seat on the Committee on Indian Affairs. She also received assignments on the Committee on Expenditures in the Interior Department and, as the only woman in Congress, on the Committee on Woman Suffrage.
During Representative Robertson’s term in Congress, her work on the Committee on Indian Affairs proved frustrating. Bills and committee reports introduced by Robertson remained unconsidered, and on her final day in office, Robertson scolded her colleagues for their lack of attention to the obligations she felt they owed to Native Americans.4 “I have kept watch through the years of the tribesmen with whom I took the peace obligation so long ago—an obligation never broken,” she said, “I protest against such action as … would take in depriving thousands of helpless Indian people of the strong defense they can receive through the Interior Department.”5
Considering Robertson’s tepid support for the vote, her assignment to the Committee on Woman Suffrage insulted many reformers. Robertson once remarked that exchanging the privileges associated with Victorian-era womanhood for the political rights enjoyed by men was like, “bartering the birthright for a mess of pottage.” She was an avowed critic of women’s groups, including the League of Women Voters, “or any other organization that will be used as a club against men.” Robertson repeatedly tangled with prominent national women’s groups’ leaders and discouraged participation in nonaligned, nonpartisan groups. “There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of women just now, having hardly found themselves in politics, to criticize faults rather than to encourage virtues,” Robertson lectured. “They call themselves non–partisan and stand on the side as harsh critics instead of going right in at the very source of government in their own immediate communities to build up what is best.” Robertson advised women to gain valuable experience in local office and state legislatures before seeking candidacy to national office. Women “have gone into politics the wrong way, beginning at the top instead of the bottom,” she once observed. “You wouldn’t think of jumping into a big Packard car and trying to run it until you had learned how. When a woman shows she is fitted for office, she will receive the call to office just as a man does.”6
Robertson opposed one of the first major pieces of legislation that affected women—the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, which provided for educating the public about pregnancy and other prenatal and infant issues. Despite intense lobbying from women’s groups and a strong measure of support in her district, she testified against the “better baby” measure in committee and voted against it on the House Floor. As the only witness to oppose the bill in its entirety, Robertson told the House Interstate Commerce Committee that it was “dangerous class legislation, separating women from the men.” Robertson believed the bill would create a federal bureau that would intrude on family life. She also preferred the money be spent on material support, worrying that instructional programs might foster “an autocratic, undefined, practically uncontrolled yet Federally authorized center of propaganda.”7
The traditionally-minded 67–year–old matron posed little threat to the folkways of the male-dominated House. One newspaper reporter described her in the vein of a former House Speaker: “built on the same architectural lines as the late Champ Clark and moving with the same deliberate tread … her costume was always black and of cut behind the prevailing mode.” Robertson quickly gained the respect of her male colleagues because of her steadfast determination to shun feminist overtures. “I came to Congress to represent my district,” she declared, “not women.” On June 20, 1921, during a roll call vote on funding for a United States delegation to the centennial celebrations of Peru’s independence, Robertson became the first woman to preside over a session of the House of Representatives.8
Robertson soon alienated a core group of constituents—World War I veterans—when she opposed a measure that would have allowed them to receive early payment on their military service pensions. President Warren Harding vetoed the “Soldiers Bonus Bill” in 1922, but it passed over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.9 Robertson suggested that such government doles would only increase public dependency on an ever-growing bureaucracy. She faced withering attacks from veterans’ groups inside and outside her district, including the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion, which judged her “unworthy of American womanhood.”10
Congresswoman Robertson’s other legislative work accorded with her district. She secured authorization for the construction of a veterans’ hospital in Muskogee to assist the more than 91,000 Oklahomans who served in World War I.11 Robertson also won approval for an amendment that increased the subsistence rate and rent money for army and navy nurses. She supported higher tariff rates and stricter immigration quotas—positions which Oklahomans broadly approved. Like many midwestern politicians, Robertson also opposed the entry of the United States into the League of Nations. She challenged Representative Meyer London of New York when he urged the release of labor leader Eugene V. Debs from prison.
But when staking out her interest in a second term, Robertson admitted that she had not been able to steer enough money into her beleaguered district to overcome her unpopular votes. “I haven’t been able to get any ‘pie,’ speaking in the language of the restaurant, and there are a lot of Republicans down in Oklahoma who are mighty hungry,” she told a reporter. She formally declared her candidacy for a second term and won the GOP primary but faced her nemesis, William Hastings, in the 1922 general election. Statewide, Democrats surged back into office, claiming seven of Oklahoma’s eight House seats. Hastings prevailed, with 58 percent of the vote to Robertson’s 42 percent, and went on to serve an additional six terms in the House.12
Robertson spent the last decade of her life trying, with little success, to fit back into life in Muskogee. In April 1923, a month after she left the House, President Harding appointed her as a welfare worker in the Muskogee Veterans’ Hospital. With memories of her Bonus Bill vote fresh in the minds of local servicemen, she was eventually ousted from the hospital position. In 1925 a fire destroyed her Sawokla home and the café, which prompted Robertson to tell a local reporter that she was certain “some of her enemies had set it.” Robertson spent her last years supported by generous friends and family and died in relative obscurity on July 1, 1931, at the Muskogee Veterans’ Hospital.13
1Alice Robertson’s maternal father, Samuel A. Worcester, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the political autonomy of the Cherokee Nation in the 1832 legal case Worcester v. Georgia;“Woman Congress Member Likes D.C.,” November 1920, Washington Post: 1.
2Hope Chamberlin, Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. (New York: Praeger, 1973): 39; for the section on her relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, see also Nancy Shoemaker, “Robertson, Alice Mary,”American National Biography 18 (New York: Oxford, 1999): 621–622.
3Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 39; “Miss Robertson of Oklahoma,” 13 November 1920, New York Times: 10.
4Robertson introduced two bills and two committee reports appropriating funds and granting relief to Native American Tribes (HR 8273, HR 10495, H. Rep. 11140, H. Rep. 1452), none of which were ever considered (see the Congressional Record, House, 67th Congress).
5 Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 4th sess. (3 March 1923): 5679.
6Cited in Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976); and in Chamberlin’s A Minority of Members: 39; “Against League of Women,” 10 February 1921, Washington Post: 6; “Robertson Says Women Must Take Election Risk,”16 March 1922, Washington Post: 5; Mayme Ober Peak, “‘Miss Alice’ Is Content After One Term to Retire to Her Sawokla Farm in Oklahoma,” 4 March 1923, Washington Post: 75. Robertson’s remark about the Packard car was not aimed at any particular woman suffrage leader, Rankin included.
7Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 41; Constance Drexel, “Miss Alice Fights ‘Better–Baby’ Bill,” 24 July 1921, Washington Post: 6.
8Peak, “‘Miss Alice’ Is Content After One Term to Retire to Her Sawokla Farm in Oklahoma” “Woman Presides at House Session; First in History,” 21 June 1921, Washington Post: 1; “Woman Presides in Congress; Precedent Broken Amid Cheers,” 21 June 1921, New York Times: Shoemaker, “Robertson, Mary Alice,” ANB.
9Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 1774–2002 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003): 185.
10Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 42; Tolchin, Women in Congress: 71.
11Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 41; Arrell Morgan Gibson, The History of Oklahoma (University of Oklahoma Press: 1972): 140.
12“Can’t Get Any ‘Pie,’ But Won’t Give Up,” 5 December 1921, New York Times: 1; “Miss Robertson Opens Reelection Campaign,” 5 July 1922, Washington Post: 10.
13“Muskogee County, Oklahoma: Turning Back the Clock,” (Muskogee, OK: Muskogee Publishing Co., 1985) http://www.rootsweb.com/~okmuskog/peopleplaces/turnback11.html (accessed 1 August 2003).