Alice Mary Robertson – First Woman to Preside Over the House

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(Credit: Library of Congress)

June 20, 2018, will mark the 97th year anniversary of a woman first presiding over a hearing of the House of Representatives. Alice Mary Robertson was only the second woman to be elected to Congress in an age when women were still considered as 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

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Sioux Indians, Engraving. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Alice Mary Robertson’s story is a remarkable testament to human willpower and the strength of good over evil. 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 where she had to overcome prejudice and accepted social norms, etching out her path and 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 help 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 tribes would not have to suffer countless injustices and could 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 out 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

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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 developed into the University of Tulsa. It’s currently one of the top educational facilities in the southern United States.

True American Patriot

True American Patriot

On May 12, 1898, During The Spanish-American War, U.S. Navy Warships Bombard San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

While fighting for civil rights, Alice was a prominent patriot who aided the US war effort every opportunity she got. 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 aiding the American army 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 her restaurant in the post-war years. The typically-nonconformist activist grew food on her farm and owned a restaurant out of which she ran her political campaigns.

Political Career

Political Career

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In 1920, Alice ran for Congress with the progressive Republican party; the party of Abe Lincoln that had opposed slavery and supported human liberties. 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 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 underprivileged and those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, she recognized the greatness of the American way.

Goes Against the Tide

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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 a 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 because these would infringe on individuals’ rights. In both her own 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 political future.

First Woman to Preside Over House of Representatives

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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 milestone 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 who believed that women deserved the right to serve their country alongside their male counterparts, was, in many ways, the perfect person for this monumental feat.