Smart, tough, and tenacious: The story of Texas's first female county attorney

By Lori J. Kaspar

It was 1912. Nellie Gray Robertson was smart, tough, and tenacious. The youngest of six children [1], she wanted to make her mark on the world. She vowed to become independent and support herself with a career.

Robertson was born Feb. 28, 1894, in Granbury, Hood County, Texas [2]. It was a time when women had few legal rights and most depended on their husbands for survival. She knew firsthand the consequences when that support system failed. Her father, William Jarrett Robertson, had left home shortly after her 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 [3].

The family was “dirt poor,” according to Nellie’s niece, and they depended on Nellie’s older brothers to provide money and food [4]. 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 [5].  

When Nellie Robertson graduated from Granbury High School in 1912, she did what few poor women dared to do—she went to college to study law [6]. Robertson entered the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 1912 [7], a year before the first Texas women became licensed attorneys [8].

In 1918, she became the first woman in Hood County—and in Texas—to be elected as county attorney [9]. She was only 24 [10]

1918 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 the University of Texas would surpass that of 1918 [11]

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. Robertson belonged to all of the women’s organizations and was an officer in all but one [12].

In 1918, women had yet to gain the right to vote in general elections, but that did not deter Robertson from running for office [13]. She returned to Granbury in 1918 and ran unopposed in the July Democratic Party primary [14]. In the November general election, the male voters of Hood County overwhelmingly supported Robertson over her male opponent—she received all but two of the 448 votes, becoming the first female county attorney in the state [15].

In 1920, Robertson 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 [16]. She ran unopposed in November and secured a second term in office [17]. At that time, the Hood County attorney position was only a part-time job [18]. So in 1921, Robertson opened the Hood County Abstract Company; she continued as its owner and operator until 1925 [19].

In 1922, Robertson ran for Hood County judge in the Democratic primary against four male opponents. Although she received 300 votes, she lost the race [20]. However, in May 1923, the newly elected county attorney, Jack Grissom, resigned his post and the county commissioners appointed Robertson to fill the remainder of his term [21]. In 1924, she ran again for county attorney and won a third term [22].

Robertson also served as an officer in the Texas District & County Attorneys Association [23]. In 1921, she was elected as the secretary and treasurer of that organization [24]. Robertson 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, Robertson also contemplated running for state representative. Instead, she retired from public office in 1926 [25].

In January 1925, Gov. Pat Neff appointed Robertson to sit as the first female chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Neff appointed three women justices—Robertson of Granbury, Mrs. Hortense Ward of Houston, and Mrs. Edith Wilmans of Dallas—to hear the case of Johnson v. Darr [26]. 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. 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 [27].

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’s “petticoat justice” and the “Portias” who would serve on the court [28].

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 [29].

Unfortunately, just before the all-female court convened in Austin, Robertson and Wilmans discovered they could not serve as justices because each woman was just months shy of the seven-year requirement. Neff appointed Ruth Brazzil and Hattie Henenberg to replace Robertson and Wilmans and named Ward as the chief justice [30].

The news of the two replacement justices, however, did not make national news. As far as the rest of the country knew, 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 [31].

When Robertson left office in 1926, she moved to New York to write law books for Doubleday Publishing Company [32]. By 1930, she had returned to Texas and soon afterward began operating Stewart Title in Beaumont [33]. She was also a partner in the Beaumont firm of Stewart, Burgess, Morris & Robertson [34].

In addition to her legal career, 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 [35].

Robertson worked hard throughout her career and she played hard, too. In addition to playing tennis, baseball, football, and golf, Robertson was a skilled poker player [36]. 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 walked up to the poker table, scooped up all of the money and poker chips into her clean apron, and marched home. According to Arminda, that cured Nellie from being late for supper [37].

Nellie Robertson retired from her law practice in 1954 and died the following year from complications of diabetes [38]. She is buried in the Granbury Cemetery [39].

Robertson was a strong and independent woman who believed women should be educated and should stand their own two feet. She never married [40].

When asked about being the first elected county attorney in the state, she shrugged and said it was “no big deal.” She 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, Robertson replied, “It is what it is” [41].

The Texas Historical Commission has approved the Hood County Historical Society’s application for a historical marker to commemorate Robertson as the first elected female county attorney in Texas. The local group plans to install the marker at the Hood County Courthouse where Robertson had her office.

Lori J. Kaspar is the current Hood County attorney and was the second woman to be elected to that position, in 2012. She has presented her research on Nellie Gray Robertson to numerous groups in and around Hood County, Texas.

[1] “Texas Dames,” 132-135, Carman Goldthwaite, 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.

[4] Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013; “Texas Dames,” 132-135, Carman Goldthwaite, 2012.

[5] Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin, Texas, Confederate Pension Applications.

[6] 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; “Texas Dames,” 132-135, Carman Goldthwaite, 2012; Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955.

[7] 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.

[8] 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 here.

[9] “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.

[10] Texas Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Nellie Gray Robertson Death Certificate #25535, May 25, 1955.

[11] 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 ratio was not seen again until the 1960s. “Celebrating 100 Years of Women at UT Law,” Allegra Jordan Young, Spring 2006 UT Law, Page 20.

[12] 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.

[13] Texas women had the rights to vote in primaries and political conventions in 1918, but not in general elections. “Woman Suffrage,” available here.

[14] 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).

[15] Hood County Election Results, 10; “Texas Dames,” 132-135, Carman Goldthwaite, 2012; “Will be First Woman County Attorney in Texas,” Dallas Morning News, July 16, 1918.

[16] Hood County Election Results, 21.

[17] Hood County Election Results, 30.

[18] Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Texas Bar Journal 667 1955.

[19] Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013

[20] Hood County Election Results, 34.

[21] Hood County Commissioners Court records, May 1923.

[22] Hood County Election Results, 42.

[23] 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 & County Attorneys Association, August 2010.

[24] “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.

[25] “Woman Elected Prosecutor in Hood Co., Texas,” Jan. 5, 1925, Albuquerque Morning News.

[26] “Neff Names Three Texas Women to Function as Special Supreme Court,” Jan. 2, 1925, Dallas Morning News; Johnson v. Darr, 114 Tex. 516 (1925).

[27] “A Case When Women Ruled Supreme,” Hollace Weiner – 59 Tex. B.J. 890 1996.

[28] “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.

[29] “A Case When Women Ruled Supreme,” Hollace Weiner – 59 Tex. B.J. 890 1996.

[30] “Another Woman on High Court Bench,” Jan 8, 1925, Dallas Morning News.

[31] Ward wrote the opinion; Brazzil and Henenberg each wrote concurring opinions. Johnson v. Darr, 114 Tex. 516 (1925).

[32] “Texas Dames,” 132-135, Carman Goldthwaite, 2012.

[33] 1930 United States Federal Census 434423904; 1940 United States Federal Census for Nellie G. Robertson; Stewart Abstract Co. v. Judicial Commission of Jefferson County, 131 S.W.2d 686 (1939); Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955.

[34] Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955.

[35] Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955; 1925 April 30 The Mexia Daily News.

[36] Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955; Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013.

[37] Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013.

[38] Nellie Robertson Obituary, 18 Tex. B.J. 667 1955; Texas Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Nellie Gray Robertson Death Certificate #25535, May 25, 1955.

[39] Texas Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Nellie Gray Robertson Death Certificate #25535, May 25, 1955.

[40] Texas Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death Certificate #25535.

[41] Interview with Mrs. Jean Robertson, June 8, 2013.

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