The Prosecutor, March-April 2014 issue

Meet Nellie Gray Robertson, the first female county attorney in Texas

An innocent question, plus a Hood County prosecutor’s interest in history and ancestry, led to the discovery of Texas’s first female county attorney, who in some respects has been lost to history.

When I was campaigning for the office of Hood County Attorney (a position I now hold), Karen Nace, one of the ladies in the local historical society, said, “You realize you’re not the first woman who will be the county attorney in Hood County? There was another woman a long time ago—Nellie Robertson.”
    Karen sent me a couple of clippings she had on Nellie as well has her graduating class photo from Granbury High School (Class of 1912)—and I took it from there. Because I was already a member of Ancestry.com (I had been doing genealogy research on my own family), I decided to use the site to look for information on Nellie. Fortunately, someone (bless his or her heart) had digitized the University of Texas School of Law yearbooks from 1916, 1917, and 1918, and I got dozens of hits on Nellie. In addition, her relatives in Colorado had done quite a bit of family research and had made their “trees” public.
    I’ve since “introduced” Nellie to numerous groups in and around Hood County, the first one being the Hood County Historical Society meeting last year. Three of Nellie’s relatives showed up for the presentation, and through them I was introduced to Jean Robertson, Nellie’s nice. Jean is the only living relative who had any personal relationship with Nellie, and she and I are close now and see each other often. (I share my Nellie research with her, and she bakes me cookies!)
    Now I’d like to share what I’ve discovered about this smart, tough, and tenacious woman with other Texas prosecutors.

More than 100 years ago
It was 1912. Nellie Gray Robertson was the youngest of six children,1 and she wanted to make her mark on the world. She vowed to become independent and support herself with a career.
    Nellie was born February 28, 1894, in Granbury (Hood County), Texas.2 It was a time when women had few legal rights, and most women depended on their husbands for survival. Nellie knew firsthand the consequences when that support system failed. Her father, William Jarrett Robertson, had left home shortly after Nellie’s birth, leaving the family destitute. He drifted in and out of their lives for years while Nellie’s mother, Arminda Barton Robertson, struggled in poverty. The family was “dirt poor,” according to Nellie’s niece, Jean, and they depended on Nellie’s older brothers to provide money and food.3 William died in Louisiana in 1910, and while Arminda was qualified for a Confederate Widow’s pension, she did not begin receiving it until 1937.4
    When Nellie graduated from Granbury High School in 1912, she did what few poor women dared to do: She went to college to study law.5 Nellie entered the University of Texas in Austin in the fall of 1912,6 a year before the first Texas women became licensed attorneys.7 In 1918, Nellie became the first woman in Hood County—and in the state of Texas—to be elected as county attorney.8 She was only 24 years old.
    Nineteen-eighteen was a banner year for other female law graduates at the University of Texas. One-sixth of the graduates that year were women. It would take 40 years before the ratio of female-to-male law students at UT would surpass that of 1918.9 Organizations for women on campus included the Texas Woman’s Law Association, the Present Day Club, Kappa Beta Pi, the Pennybacker Debating Club, the Woman’s Assembly, and the Woman’s Council. Nellie Robertson belonged to all of the women’s organizations and was an officer in all but one.10
    In 1918, women had yet to gain the right to vote in general elections, but that did not deter Nellie Gray Robertson from running for office. She returned to Granbury in 1918 and ran unopposed in the July Democratic primary.11 In the November general election, the male voters of Hood County overwhelmingly supported Nellie over her male opponent—she received all but two of the 448 votes, becoming the first female county attorney in the state.12    
    In 1920, Nellie ran for re-election, but this time she had a primary opponent. Nonetheless, she prevailed with 776 votes to Mr. E. L. Roark’s 570 votes.13 Nellie ran unopposed in November and secured a second term in office. At that time, the Hood County Attorney position was only a part-time job. So in 1921, Nellie opened the Hood County Abstract Company; she continued as its owner and operator until 1925.
    In 1922, Nellie ran for Hood County Judge in the Democratic Primary against four male opponents. Although she received 300 votes, she lost the race.14 However, in May 1923, the newly elected county attorney, Jack Grissom, resigned his post and the county commissioners appointed Nellie to fill the remainder of his term. In 1924, Nellie ran again for county attorney and won a third term.
    Nellie also served as an officer in the District and County Attorneys’ Association.15 In 1921, she was elected as the secretary and treasurer of that organization.16 Nellie served as a district judge in 1922; the local bar members appointed her to replace the district judge after he was disqualified on a case. At one time, Nellie also contemplated running for state representative. Instead, she retired from public office in 1926.17
    In January 1925, shortly after her last election victory, Governor Pat Neff appointed Nellie Robertson to sit as the first female Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Neff appointed three women justices—Robertson of Granbury, Hortense Ward of Houston, and Edith Wilmans of Dallas—to hear the case of Johnson v. Darr.18 The case involved a tract of land owned by the Woodmen of the World. The Woodmen was a male-only organization, and nearly every male lawyer and judge was a member. As a result, all three members of the sitting court were disqualified. Governor Neff (considered a lame duck, having lost the recent election to “Ma” Ferguson) decided the only sensible thing to do was to appoint an all-woman court. The qualifications for sitting as a justice were threefold: 1) a minimum of seven years practicing law or having held the office of district judge, 2) a minimum age of 30, and 3) never having fought in a duel.19
    Governor Neff and the state of Texas made history—and national headlines—when news broke of the all-female court. Newspapers from coast to coast proclaimed the news of Texas’ “petticoat justice” and the “Portias” who would serve on the court.20 Not everyone was pleased, however. The clerk of the court reportedly refused to “play nursemaid to a bunch of women” and declared he would go fishing.21
    Unfortunately, just before the all-female court convened in Austin, Nellie Gray Robertson and Edith Wilmans discovered they could not serve as justices because each woman was just months shy of the seven-year requirement. Governor Neff appointed Ruth Brazzil and Hattie Henenberg to replace Robertson and Wilmans, and he named Hortense Ward as the chief justice.22 The news of the two replacement justices, however, did not make national news; as far as the rest of the country knew, Nellie Robertson was still the first female chief justice. The all-female court rendered its opinion on May 4, 1925, upholding the lower court’s decision.23
    When Nellie left office in 1926, she moved to New York to write law books for Doubleday Publishing Company. By 1930, she had returned to Texas and soon afterward, she began operating Stewart Title in Beaumont. She was also a partner in the Beaumont firm of Stewart, Burgess, Morris & Robertson.
    In addition to her legal career, Nellie Robertson was an associate lay leader for the Cleburne district of the Central Texas Methodist conference. She was also a grand matron in the Eastern Star.
    Nellie worked hard throughout her career, but she played hard, too. In addition to playing tennis, baseball, football, and golf, Nellie was a skilled poker player.24 Her niece, Jean, said Nellie would play “for money, for matchsticks, or for whatever was handy.” Nellie’s mother liked to tell a story about an incident that happened at the courthouse. Nellie lived with her mother, Arminda, during her tenure as county attorney, and Arminda was annoyed that Nellie had come home late for dinner several nights in a row. Arminda recalled, “I put on a clean apron and marched right down to the courthouse. And what do you think I found when I got there? There was Nellie, playing poker with the men from the courthouse!” Arminda said she walked up to the poker table, scooped up all of the money and the poker chips into her clean apron, and marched home. According to Arminda, that cured Nellie from being late for supper.25
     Nellie retired from her law practice in 1954 and died the following year from complications of diabetes. She never married. She is buried in the Granbury Cemetery.
    Nellie was a strong and independent woman who believed women should be educated and should stand their own two feet. When asked about being the first elected county attorney in the state, she shrugged and said it was “no big deal.” Nellie also took her brief appointment (and subsequent disqualification) to the Texas Supreme Court in stride. When asked how she felt about missing the chance to be the first female Supreme Court justice, Nellie replied, “It is what it is.”26
    The Texas Historical Commission has approved the Hood County Historical Society’s application for a historical marker to commemorate Nellie Gray Robertson as the first elected female county attorney in Texas. The local group plans to install the marker at the historical Hood County Courthouse where Nellie had her office.

Endnotes

1 Goldthwaite, Carman; “Texas Dames,” 132-135; 2012.
2 Texas Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Nellie Gray Robertson Death Certificate #25535, May 25, 1955.
3 Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013; Goldthwaite, Carman; “Texas Dames,” 132-135; 2012.
4 Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin, Texas, Confederate Pension Applications.
5 Jean Robertson, Nellie’s niece, had no idea how Nellie was able to afford college considering how poor her family was. Jean assumes Nellie worked to pay her way through her six years at the university. Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013; “Goldthwaite, Carman; “Texas Dames,” 132-135; 2012; Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955.
6 The university verifies that Robertson attended from the fall of 1912 until the spring of 1918; however, its records do not indicate she graduated. Robertson, Nellie Gray, transcript, University of Texas; Texas Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Nellie Gray Robertson Death Certificate #25535, May 25, 1955.
7 The 1910 federal census listed only three female attorneys in Texas. Texas did not swear in its first three female attorneys until 1913. Texas State Historical Association, available at www .tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jsw02.
8 “Woman Serves Ably as Hood Co. Attorney,” Aug. 20, 1921, Fort Worth Star-Telegram; “Will be First Woman County Attorney in Texas,” Dallas Morning News, July 16, 1918.
9 UT Law enrolled its first female law student in 1906, but the first women did not graduate until 1914. In 1918, 17 percent of the graduating class was women. This percentage was not seen again until the 1960s. “Celebrating 100  Years of Women at UT Law,” Allegra Jordan Young, Spring 2006 UT Law, page 20.
10 Kappa Beta Pi, 197, 1918 UT Cactus; Pennybacker Debating Club, 243, 1918 UT Cactus; Present Day Club, 217, 1918 UT Cactus; Texas Woman’s Law Association, 222, 1918 UT Cactus; Woman’s Assembly, 168, 1918 UT Cactus; Woman’s Council, 167, 1918 UT Cactus.
11 Hood County Election Results 1918-1961, 2 (only one actual handwritten book, housed in historical safe in the historical Treasurer’s office in the Hood County Courthouse).
12 Hood County Election Results, 10; Goldthwaite, Carman; “Texas Dames,” 132-135, 2012; “Will be First Woman County Attorney in Texas,” Dallas Morning News, July 16, 1918.
13 Hood County Election Results, 21.
14 Hood County Election Results, 34.
15 The first record of the association was in November 1905. At the time, the organization consisted of Texas prosecutors who met annually to discuss laws and policies. The Texas District and County Attorneys Association, August 2010.
16 “Woman Serves Ably as Hood Co. Attorney,” Aug. 20, 1921, Fort Worth Star-Telegram; “Ku Klux to be Discussed by Law Guardians,” Aug. 4, 1921, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
17 “Woman Elected Prosecutor in Hood Co., Texas,” Jan. 5, 1925, Albuquerque Morning News.
18 “Neff Names Three Texas Women to Function as Special Supreme Court,” Jan. 2, 1925, Dallas Morning News; Johnson v. Darr, 114 Tex. 516 (1925).
19 “A Case When Women Ruled Supreme,” Hollace Weiner, 59 Tex. B.J. 890 1996.
20 “Texas’ all-woman Supreme Court,” Dean Moorhead, Port Arthur News, Feb. 11, 1973; “Texas Governor Places Three Portias on Special Tribunal,” Greensboro Record, Jan. 7, 1925.
21 “A Case When Women Ruled Supreme,” Hollace Weiner, 59 Tex. B.J. 890 1996.
22 “Another Woman on High Court Bench,” Jan 8, 1925 Dallas Morning News.
23 Ward wrote the opinion; Brazzil and Henenberg each wrote concurring opinions. Johnson v. Darr, 114 Tex. 516 (1925).
24 Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955; Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013.
25 Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013.
26 Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013.