Ellen Lawson Dabbs, physician, early women’s rights activist, Populist, and reform journalist, the only daughter of Henry M. and Amanda (Brown) Lawson’s eight children, was born on the family plantation in Rusk County, Texas, on April 25, 1853. Both her parents came from wealthy Georgian families. After their migration to Texas in 1844, her father became a planter in East Texas and served in the state legislature from 1851 to 1853. During the Civil War, her father served in the Seventeenth Texas Cavalry with the Confederate army and her mother managed the family property including enslaved laborers.
Following her early education at a one-room school, she attended Looney’s School in Upshur County during Reconstruction. In 1872, at Furlow Masonic Female College in Americus, Georgia, she graduated first in her class. She taught music and science for five years in Nacogdoches County before marrying Joseph W. Dabbs, a merchant from Sulphur Springs, on March 17, 1877. Joseph, a widower, had four sons, ages eleven to eighteen, when he married twenty-three-year-old Ellen Lawson. The couple subsequently had five daughters during the next nine years.
Ellen Dabbs worked in the family’s mercantile business until 1885 when Joseph Dabbs transferred his stores to his adult sons and moved with his wife and daughters to St. Louis, Missouri. There was conflict over the proper role of a wife and mother in the marriage, and spousal abuse prompted Ellen Dabbs to return with her daughters to Texas where she filed for divorce, with financial help from her brothers, and trained to be a physician.
After one year of medical study with a male physician in Sulphur Springs, she moved with her young daughters to Keokuk, Iowa, where she attended the co-educational College of Physicians and Surgeons and arranged an internship at the Newland School of Midwifery in St. Louis. Upon receiving her medical degree in February 1890, she started a practice treating women and children in Dallas, but the questionable dismissal of her four-year divorce case in Hopkins County, necessitated a move back to Sulphur Springs.
Ellen Dabbs remained separated from but legally married to Joseph Dabbs, but she had no share of their community property and no recourse to the courts to mandate support for her daughters. The inequity that Ellen Dabbs and her daughters experienced at the hands of the men in the Dabbs family through collusion with male Hopkins County officeholders spurred the woman physician to join the Texas Farmers’ Alliance. She became part owner and editor of the newspaper, the Alliance Vindicator, and advised women readers to educate themselves to reform the political, economic, and social systems. In November 1891 she moved to Fort Worth, where she was editor of the Industrial Educator and the Fort Worth Advance and collaborated with male political reformers who formed the Texas People’s Party. Her articles appeared in the National Economist, a national Alliance newspaper based in Washington, D.C., and the Union Signal, the national journal of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1892 she was a delegate to the state Woman's Christian Temperance Union convention and presided as the state chairperson of the Woman's Southern Council. That same year, she served as one of two Texas women delegates to the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union convention at St. Louis and was a Texas delegate at the National People’s Party presidential convention (see MUNN, BETTIE GAY).
Ellen Dabbs helped organize the Texas Woman’s Press Association and the state's first woman suffrage society, the Texas Equal Rights Association (TERA), in 1893. She also was elected TERA corresponding secretary. The following year she helped found a local auxiliary in Fort Worth. She addressed suffragists and Populist audiences on the need for the moral influence of women in politics and legislation and defended women's rights in the Dallas Morning News (see WOMEN AND POLITICS).
In 1893 she was co-organizer of the Texas Woman's Congress (later the State Council of Women of Texas, often called the Texas Woman’s Council), an affiliate of the National Woman’s Council, at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, which brought together women's organizations concerned with philanthropy, social reform, education, literature, and the fine arts (see WOMEN AND LITERATURE and LITERATURE). Elected president of the council in 1894, Dabbs pressed women to political action to raise the age of consent for girls, then set at twelve years old in Texas. The following year the age of fifteen was established as the age for statutory rape (see WOMEN AND THE LAW). Under Dabbs’s leadership, the council advocated public kindergartens and higher education for women. For six years, Dabbs lead the council in a campaign for a state university for the vocational education of women. Though she supported a co-educational campus at Texas A&M, other factions that supported a campus for women only prevailed, and Texas Girls' Industrial College (now Texas Woman’s University) was founded a decade later.
Dabbs was admitted as the first woman member of the North Texas Medical Association in 1894 and served on its committee for gynecology and obstetrics (see MEDICAL SOCIETIES). Her papers were not confined to medical conditions but included social reform issues and assertions that a woman should have control over her own body. In 1898 Dabbs was one of ten women physicians who served as medical personnel in the Spanish-American War. She contracted tuberculosis at Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Florida.
Her health deteriorated over the next decade. In 1899 she moved to Rusk County after she lost her Fort Worth home to fire. In 1903, however, she and her daughters returned to Fort Worth and she continued to speak on women’s health and public education. Three years later she moved to Waurika, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to live closer to one of her daughters and delivered her first grandchild. Eventually, she sought the high plains of Quay County, New Mexico. Ellen Lawson Dabbs died by suicide in Logan, New Mexico, on August 19, 1908.