Nellie Gray Robertson

 The First Female County Attorney in Texas

Left to right, Ty Robertson, Hood County Attorney Lori Kaspar and Homer Robertson attending the 2015 dedication of the Texas Historical Marker honoring Nellie Gray Robertson. The younger and elder Robertsons are Nellie Gray Robertson’s great-great nephew

It was 1912. Nellie Gray Robertson was smart, tough and tenacious. The youngest of six children, Nellie wanted to make her mark on the world. She vowed to become independent and to support herself with a career.

Nellie was born Feb. 28, 1894, in Granbury, Hood County, Texas. It was a time when women had few legal rights and most women depended on their husbands for survival. Nellie knew first-hand the consequences when women’s support systems failed. Her father, William Jarrett Robertson, had left home shortly after Nellie’s birth, leaving the family destitute. He drifted in and out of the family for years while Nellie’s mother, Arminda Barton Robertson, struggled in poverty. The family was “dirt poor” according to Nellie’s niece and they depended on Nellie’s older brothers to provide money and food. In 1903, William Jarrett Robertson and his siblings deeded their father’s house at 223 N. Travis Street in Granbury to Arminda in consideration for the “love and respect we have for her and for her kind and careful attention to our deceased father during his life time and sickness.” William died in Louisiana in 1910, and although Arminda was qualified for a Confederate widow’s pension, she did not begin receiving it until 1937.

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. Nellie entered the University of Texas in Austin in the fall of 1912, a year before the first Texas women became licensed attorneys.

She completed her studies, and in 1918, Nellie became the first woman in Hood County — and in the state of Texas — to be elected as county attorney. She was only 24 years old.

Nineteen eighteen was a banner year for other female law students 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 the UT would surpass that of 1918. 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 these women’s organizations and was an officer in all but one of them.

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 Party Primary. 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. 

In 1920, Nellie ran for re-election, but this time she had a primary opponent. Nonetheless, she prevailed with 776 votes to E. L. Roark’s 570 votes. Nellie ran unopposed in November of that year 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 purchased an interest in the Hood County Abstract Company. She continued as an 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. 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 resigned as county attorney in August 1925 and moved to Dallas to practice law.

Nellie also served as an officer in what became the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. In 1921, she was elected as the secretary and treasurer of that organization. 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.

 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 — Nellie of Granbury, Hortense Ward of Houston, and Edith Wilmans of Dallas — to hear the case of Johnson v. Darr. 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 logical thing to do was to appoint an all-woman court. The qualifications to be 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 thirty, and 3) never having fought in a duel. Nothing in the qualifications stated a woman could not sit as a justice. Reportedly, when the governor called the Supreme Court office to enquire as to whether women would be qualified to sit on the court, a deputy clerk thought the governor was joking. The clerk told the governor women would be qualified “if he could find three women who could agree on an opinion.”

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 justices” and the “Portias” who would serve on the Court. Not everyone was pleased, however. The clerk of the Supreme Court reportedly refused to “play nursemaid to a bunch of women” and declared he would go fishing instead.

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 three 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. 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. In fact, numerous news accounts incorrectly identified Nellie as sitting on the Court. The all-female court rendered its opinion on May 4, 1925, upholding the lower court’s decision. Interestingly, there were actually three opinions issued: Justice Ward issued the majority opinion and Justices Henenberg and Brazzil each wrote her own concurring opinion.

In 1926, Nellie 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 involved in numerous community activities and organizations. She was a member of the Woman’s Wednesday Club in Granbury. Nellie was an associate lay leader for the Cleburne district of the Central Texas Methodist conference. In addition, she served as a grand matron in the Eastern Star.

Nellie worked hard throughout her career and she played hard, too. In addition to playing tennis, baseball, football, and golf, Nellie was a skilled poker player. Her niece, Jean Robertson, 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 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.

Nellie retired from her law practice in 1948 at age 54. She died in 1955 from complications of diabetes at age 61. Nellie is buried in the Granbury Cemetery.

Nellie was a strong and independent woman who believed women should be educated and should stand on their own two feet. Nellie never married, so she had no daughters to whom she could pass along that wisdom. Nellie did, however, provide encouragement and financial support to nieces who wanted to further their educations.

Nellie seemed to take her fame in stride. When asked about having been elected the first female county attorney in the state, she would just shrug and say it was “no big deal.” When asked how she felt about missing the chance to be the first female Supreme Court justice in Texas, she matter-of-factly, “It is what it is.”

On June 20, 2015, the Hood County Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker to commemorate Nellie Gray Robertson as the first elected female county attorney in Texas. The marker is installed on the grounds of the historical Hood County Courthouse where Nellie had her office.

 

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