Nellie Gray Robertson, attorney, was born on February 28, 1894, in Granbury (Hood County), Texas. She was the daughter of William Jarrett Robertson and Arminda (Barton) Robertson. She attended the local public schools and graduated from Granbury High School in 1912. The only girl of six children, Nellie was academically motivated from an early age and, despite the impoverished family background created when her father abandoned them, she managed to put herself through the University of Texas School of Law.
Her own mother’s struggles as a single parent motivated Robertson to find her independence and place in the world without a man. She never married and remained fiercely independent until her death. Though she had no children of her own, she inspired many young women in their academic endeavors and implored family members to continue their studies and even paid her nieces’ college tuition.
Robertson applied to study at the University of Texas, where she started in 1912. She was an active member of the university community and took part in a variety of clubs, including Texas Woman’s Law Association, the Present Day Club, Kappa Beta Pi, Pennybacker Debating Club, the Woman’s Assembly, and the Woman’s Council. Robertson quickly rose through both scholarly and social ranks and became an officer in all but one of the clubs she joined.
She was at the University of Texas from 1912 to 1918 and then returned to Granbury and ran unopposed for county attorney in the Democratic primary, two years before women gained the right to vote on a national level (seeWOMAN SUFFRAGE). In the general election, she was elected by the men of the county, in a remarkable victory of 446 votes to 2 over a male opponent—thus she became at the age of twenty-four the first woman to hold the office. Two years later she successfully ran for re-election, this time appealing to both male and female voters, to beat Mr. E. L. Roark substantially by 776 votes to 570 in the primary; she won unopposed in the general election. While she held office as county attorney, a part-time position at the time, Robertson continued to push boundaries. She simultaneously held office, part-owned and ran the Hood County Abstract Company, and managed to work her way up in the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. She was rewarded for her hard work in this association in 1921, when she was elected secretary and treasurer of the organization. In 1922, following her previous successes, Robertson sought to become the Hood County Judge but was unsuccessful against four male candidates. In 1924 she won a third term as county attorney.
A year before her retirement from public office in 1926, Robertson was chosen to sit as the first female chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. This All-Woman Supreme Court was chosen by Governor Pat Neff and was a national story that faced backlash from many, including a clerk involved in the Johnson v. Darr trial, who exclaimed that he would go fishing, as he “refused to play nursemaid to a bunch of women.” The trial, more than thirty years before Texas women were allowed to serve on juries, continues to be a central moment in the history of female empowerment in Texas. Unfortunately, Robertson was a few months short of seven years in practice, which made her ineligible for the court. Due to the last-minute nature of the change, the newspapers were unable to modify the text, and her name is still often tied to this historic event. When asked later in life how she felt about missing out on such a huge milestone Robertson responded nonchalantly, “It is what it is.”
In 1925 Robertson moved to Dallas to practice law, but restlessness got the better of her, and in the following year she moved again, this time to New York. In the new setting, Robertson slightly altered her career path and began to write law books for the Doubleday Publishing Company. Her time away from Texas did not last long; in 1930 Robertson returned to Texas for good and moved to Beaumont where she lived for the rest of her life. She operated Stewart Title in Beaumont and was a partner in the firm of Stewart, Burgess, Morris and Robertson. She retired from law in 1954. During her life she was active in the Central Texas Methodist Conference and was a Worthy Matron in the Eastern Star. While on a visit to Granbury, Nellie Robertson, at the age of sixty-one, died in Harris Hospital in Fort Worth on May 20, 1955, from complications of diabetes. She was buried in Granbury Cemetery in Granbury, Texas.
Nellie Gray Robertson’s story had been forgotten until the election of the second female Hood County attorney, Lori Kaspar, in November 2012—ninety-four years after Robertson had paved the way. The reclaiming of Robertson’s story led to the dedication of a Texas Historical Marker outside the Hood County courthouse on June 20, 2015.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Hood County News, March 13, 2013; June 23, 2015. “Judge Nellie Gray Robertson,” Find A Grave Memorial (http://findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=30525064), accessed October 24, 2016. Lori J. Kaspar, “Nellie Gray Robertson: The First Female County Attorney in Texas,” County, February 15, 2016 (http://www.county.org/magazine/departments/historicalhighlights/Pages/Nellie-Gray-Robertson.aspx), accessed October 17, 2016. Lori J. Kaspar, “Smart, tough, and tenacious: The story of Texas’s first female county attorney,” Texas Bar Blog, State Bar of Texas (http://blog.texasbar.com/2014/03/articles/people/smart-tough-and-tenacious-the-story-of-texass-first-female-county-attorney/), accessed October 17, 2016.
Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
Texas in the 1920s
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“Robertson, Nellie Gray,”
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