Eliza Sophia "Birdie" Johnson, first Democratic national committeewoman from Texas and state women's club leader, the ninth of twelve children, was born to E. S. C. and Mary Elizabeth (Dickey) Robertson on November 15, 1868, in Salado, Texas. Her father was the son of the empresarioSterling C. Robertson and one of the founders of the town of Salado and Salado College in Bell County. Eliza received her early education at Salado College, where she graduated in 1886. She then studied music at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia, and graduated summa cum laude in 1888. She married Cone Johnson, a state senator and later solicitor of the United States Department of State, on May 8, 1889. Although a traditionalist in her religious beliefs and views of women's roles, Johnson used her early experience as a local club leader and supporter of her husband's political ambitions to propel herself into progressive Democratic politics at the national level. As the well-educated and childless wife of a prominent Texas politician, she found herself with the time and opportunity to become active in her husband's campaigns and in local, state, and national organizations that supported her interests in education, family history, social service, and woman suffrage.
The Johnsons moved in 1889 to Tyler, where Johnson soon became a leader in regional and state women's organizations. She served as president of the Woman's Home Missionary Society of the Marvin Methodist Episcopal Church for many years and held membership in the International Order of the King's Daughters and Sons. Through her membership in the Quid Nunc literary club of Tyler, she rose to the presidency of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, a post she held from 1905 to 1907. She also held leadership positions in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Daughters of the War of 1812. While president of the UDC in 1901, she led a lobbying campaign to enlist public support to persuade the Texas legislature to fund a memorial to Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Her use of letters, circulars, the press, influential citizens, and personal appeals to individual legislators resulted in a $10,000 grant for the memorial.
From 1902 to 1913 she served on the board of regents of the newly established Girls' Industrial College in Denton (now Texas Woman's University). She also served on the executive board of the Conference for Education in Texas, an organization promoting better schools. In 1912 she worked in Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign. She became vice president of the Woman's National Wilson and Marshall Organization and president of the Texas chapter. Working out of the Democratic national headquarters in New York, she sent out political appeals to women nationwide. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1914 when her husband received his appointment to the state department. After their return to Tyler in 1917, she served on the executive board of the Tyler chapter of the American Red Cross, directed the Woman's War Saving Committee, and campaigned for the Liberty Loan Committee. After World War I she led a successful effort to bring the YWCA to Tyler.
Birdie Johnson became active in the League of Women Voters in 1920 and served as codirector of its State Women for Neff organization, which supported Pat Neff for governor. She and her husband both won election as delegates to the 1920 Democratic national convention, thus becoming perhaps the first husband-wife delegate team in United States history. As a delegate, she supported the Democrats' endorsement of the proposed woman suffrage amendment. The Texas delegation unanimously chose Johnson as the first Democratic national committeewoman from Texas. She served in that capacity until 1923. In addition, she headed the women's division of the Democratic party in Texas in 1920.
She withdrew from politics in 1923. After a long illness she died in a Fort Worth hospital on November 15, 1926, and was buried in Tyler. She and her husband had no children.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Alice J. Cooksey, "A Woman of Her Time: Birdie Robertson Johnson," East Texas Historical Journal 24 (1986). Eliza S. R. Johnson Papers, Special Collections, Texas Woman's University Library.
Activism and Social Reform
School Trustees and Regents
Suffragists and Antisuffragists
Politics and Government
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
Texas in the 1920s
East Central Texas
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