The True Story of Alice Mary Robertson – First woman to preside over the House of Representatives
June 20, 2020 will mark the 99th anniversary of the first time in
American history a woman presided over a hearing of the House of Representatives. Alice Mary Robertson was only the second female to be elected to Congress in an age when women were still considered second class citizens by many elements of society. She was a self-made social activist, public servant, and business owner who wasn’t afraid to take a stand.
Fighter for social justice
Alice Mary Robertson’s story is a remarkable testament to human willpower. Born into a family that celebrated diversity and human rights, the young activist sought a career path that would enable her to help weaker ethnic groups while maintaining her patriotism. Her story is replete with instances of overcoming prejudice and accepted social norms. She was an individual who etched out her own path in life, changing the course of history.
Young Alice grew up listening to Indian lore: stories of cunning, bravery, and sacrifice. Her parents were both Christian missionaries who made educating and helping integrate Creek Indians into American society their life labor. They worked tirelessly to ease the plight of the tribesmen, educating the Indians, and translating many literary works including the Bible, into the Creek Indian dialogue.
Her maternal grandfather, Samuel Worcester, was amongst the early missionaries who envisioned a society where Native Americans would not have to suffer countless injustices and be able to raise their kids as equal citizens. He accompanied the Cherokees on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838 as the tribe was forcefully removed from its ancestral lands to make way for the Georgia Gold Rush. As many as 8,000 of the 16,543 Cherokee tribesmen perished along the way from malnutrition, disease, and exposure to the brutal elements.
Alice’s family lived amongst the Creek Indians and the young girl quickly mastered five Indian dialects. She was homeschooled by her parents, and, at the age of 18, went on to study at Elmira College in New York, graduating near the top of her class.
A Life of Service
The new college graduate immediately set out to further the cause of American Indians, working at the U.S Indian Office from 1873 to 1879. Following her first exposure to an American government institution, Alice returned to her native town of Tallahassee, where she worked as a teacher, educating Indian youths over the next 20 years. Alice was selected to run an Indian girls’ boarding school which later became the University of Tulsa. It’s currently one of the top educational facilities in the southern United States.
True American Patriot
While fighting for civil rights, Alice was a true American patriot who aided her country at every opportunity. She helped recruit soldiers for the 1898 Spanish-American War and when 15,000 troops passed through Muskogee to pursue Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa who had staged a guerilla attack on an American border town, she handed out homemade food packages to the soldiers.
Robertson continued her voluntary work when the US entered World War I. Her lifelong dedication to serving her country continued as she fed upwards of 600 people a day in the post-war years. The typically-nonconformist activist grew food on her own farm and owned a restaurant out of which she ran her political campaigns.
In 1920, Alice ran for Congress with the progressive Republican party; the party of Abe Lincoln that had opposed slavery and supported human rights. Her simple, direct campaign slogan: “I am a Christian, I am an American, I am a Republican,” reflected the character of a woman who, despite her own history of fighting for the rights of weaker elements of American society, sought in every way possible to serve her country. It seems that Robertson was able to see the “bigger picture;” that while supporting the under-privileged and those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, she recognized the greatness of the American way.
Alice was elected, defeating incumbent Democrat William Hastings by just 228 out of a total of 50,000 votes cast. She served as a congresswoman from the Second District from March 4th, 1921 to March 3rd, 1923 when Hastings reclaimed the seat. Robertson was just the second woman to be elected to Congress. She was sixty-six at the time, and had never been married. Thrust into office on a wave of Republican resurgence in the state of Oklahoma, the gutsy activist announced she would fight for the rights of the lower strata of society: soldiers, Indians, and working people.
While Alice was elected to office just a year after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which gave women voting rights, she opposed some women’s rights groups, and voted against bills funding maternity leaves and childcare services on the grounds that these would infringe on individuals’ personal rights. In both her personal life, and affairs of state, she espoused the American spirit of individual freedom and wasn’t afraid to go against the grain even if it meant endangering her own political future.
First Woman to Preside over House of Representatives
On June 20, 1921, Alice Mary Robertson was selected to preside over a US House of Representatives vote to appropriate $15,000 for a delegation that would attend Peru’s centennial independence celebrations. She received a warm round of applause upon mounting the House podium. Having conducted the count, (it passed with a conclusive 209 in favor and 42 against) Robertson left the rostrum to another round of applause.
That day marked the first time in the history of the US that a woman presided over the House of Representatives. It was a watershed moment in the history of the nation as the suffrage movement was finally able to reap the fruits of its long, difficult battle for women’s voting rights. Robertson, a self-made patriot who dedicated her life to fighting for those unable to fend for themselves and believed that women deserved the right to serve their country alongside their male counterparts, was, in many ways, the perfect individual for this monumental feat.