Robertson, Alice Mary (1854–1931)

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Robertson, Alice Mary (1854–1931)

American educator and politician who was the first woman to preside over the U.S. House of Representatives (1921). Born Mary Alice Robertson at Tullahassee Mission, Indian Territory (now Tullahassee, Oklahoma), on January 2, 1854; died in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on July 1, 1931; daughter of William Schenck Robertson and Ann Eliza (Worcester) Robertson (both missionary teachers); received early education at home; attended Elmira College in New York, 1871–73; never married; children: adopted daughter, Suzanne Barnett.

Born on January 2, 1854, Alice Mary Robertson grew up at the Tullahassee Mission in what was then Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Her father William Schenck Robertson had journeyed to the remote territory five years before Alice's birth to take control of the newly formed Tullahassee boarding school, a joint venture between the Creek Indian government and the Presbyterian mission board. Both he and her mother Ann Worcester Robertson were missionary teachers. Alice's maternal grandfather was the famous Congregational minister Samuel A. Worcester, who had served as a missionary to the Cherokees. Robertson spent her early life at the mission, before attending Elmira College in New York from 1871 to 1873. However, she cut her education short so that a younger sister could also have a college education.

Robertson continued her association with Native Americans into adulthood when she took a position as a clerk in the Office of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. She resigned in 1879 and returned to Tullahassee to teach at the mission school. When a fire destroyed the school, she became secretary to Captain Richard H. Pratt, superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Two years later, she again returned to Tullahassee to assist her mother in raising funds to build a new school, proving adept at the task. In 1885, Robertson was given the responsibility of running a Presbyterian mission girls' boarding school at Muskogee. Her efforts paved the way for the boarding school's expansion in 1894 into a coeducational college. Known as Henry Kendall College, the fledgling college also benefited from Robertson's teaching of English, history, and civics. (It would later be moved to Tulsa and renamed the University of Tulsa.)

When the federal government took control of Indian education in 1897, Robertson decided to pursue the position of federal supervisor of Creek schools. Her determination prevailed, and she resigned from Henry Kendall College in 1899, to begin the following year what became the exhausting work of federal supervisor. The constant reports and school site visits kept her busy, as did her appointment and certification of teachers. At her suggestion, President Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend, appointed Robertson postmistress of Muskogee in 1905. She held that position until 1913, when the Wilson administration took over.

Robertson retired that year and settled into farming just outside of Muskogee, where she lived with her adopted Native American daughter, Suzanne Barnett . Together they bred dairy cattle and grew vegetables. Robertson also established a successful cafeteria in Muskogee that served hungry troops when military trains rolled through town during World War I. Robertson's delivery of coffee and refreshments to the soldiers was so greatly appreciated that she became known in training camps as "Miss Alice." Her cafeteria soon expanded its services to become the Muskogee Red Cross service and a model for other Red Cross stations to follow.

Even though Robertson herself had opposed women's suffrage, she was persuaded to run for Congress on a Republican ticket after the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. (The only woman previously elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin , who served from 1916 to 1919 after Montana granted women the right to vote.) Robertson based her campaign on the principles of Christianity and patriotism, and beat incumbent William W. Hastings. Her victory in predominantly Democratic Oklahoma came at a time when Republican landslide victories occurred nationwide. She was the only woman member of Congress and garnered much public attention as a result, although her career was fairly unremarkable. She was assigned to the House Committee on Indian Affairs, the Committee on Expenditures in the Interior Department, and (somewhat less appropriately) the Committee on Woman Suffrage. On June 20, 1921, she became the first woman to preside over a session of the House of Representatives, when she announced the vote for the funding of a U.S. delegation to Peru for the

centennial celebration of Peru's independence. As a conservative, she opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations and toed the Republican Party line on most issues, with the noted exception of her opposition to the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which provided federal aid to state maternal and child health-care programs. She argued that the act was an intrusion on personal rights by the government, but her opposition angered her female constituents, including the Daughters of the American Revolution. Robertson was also an opponent of such women's political groups as the League of Women Voters and the National Women's Party. In addition to alienating women's groups, Robertson made veterans unhappy by voting against the Soldiers' Bonus Bill, although she voted to increase financial support for Army and Navy nurses. Having severely weakened her support base, she lost the 1922 election to Hastings. She also failed to win an appointment to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Harding administration.

Following her defeat, Robertson returned to Oklahoma and served briefly as a welfare worker at the Veterans Hospital in Muskogee. She ended her diverse career as the Washington correspondent for the Muskogee News and as an employee of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Robertson died of cancer of the jaw in 1931 and was buried at Greenhill Cemetery in Muskogee, Oklahoma.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Office of the Historian. Women In Congress, 1917–1990. Commission on the Bicentenary of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1991.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Brenda Kubiac , freelance writer, Chesterfield, Michigan