She Turned Political Conservatism into Women’s Firsts

In 1920, the Republican Party’s national platform took a turn toward conservative beliefs after a brief progressive burst of idealism. Their candidate was Warren G. Harding, but among the others who rode his wave into Federal office was Alice Mary Robertson, whose actions and words sometimes contradicted each other. Yet Robertson, for all her conservative rhetoric, took advantage when opportunities came her way, allowing her to claim two political firsts for women.

Alice Mary Robertson

Alice Mary Robertson

Robertson decided to run for the House of Representatives in 1920, but the Oklahoma news organizations paid her little mind. When she defeated the incumbent, Democrat William Wirt Hastings, she became the first woman to ever beat an incumbent Congressman in an election. Hastings wasn’t some first-term Congressman; he had held the office for six years, yet he lost by just 228 votes to a woman who had never run for office and who confined her campaign to the visitors of her restaurant. The Sawokla Café, a restaurant on a 50-acre dairy farm, was a hotspot for politicians, journalists, students and alumni, as well as the local community of Muskogee, Oklahoma. Even though she talked about her bid for office with every one who came through her café doors, the newspapers still ignored her. We may imagine that she won because of the “R” next to her name, because a wave of  GOP candidates claimed victory that year. However, if we go back to World War I, we see Robertson out by the trains that passed through her town, carrying troops to war. She spoke with the soldiers and gave them free sandwiches, and in her campaign, she promised to look after their interests.

Indeed, in her most famous campaign speech given at her café, she appealed to both traditional and new voters in her state.

“There are already more lawyers and bankers in Congress than are needed,” Robertson said during the campaign, according to state archives. “The farmers need a farmer. I am a farmer. The women need a woman to look after their new responsibilities. The soldier boys need a proven friend.”

Unfortunately her voting record would not live up to this speech.

Alice was already 67 when she was sworn into office in Washington, D.C., but her party rewarded her conservative alliance with prime seats on several committees: the Committee on Indian Affairs, the Committee on Expenditures in the Interior Department, and the Committee on Woman Suffrage, oddly still around even though women could then vote in all elections around the nation. Her presence on that committee was also odd, since she claimed that she opposed suffrage. In fact, Robertson publicly denounced many of the women’s rights organizations in her day and opposed some popular legislation focused on women, because she claimed it would divide men from women too much. As a reward, the GOP entrusted her to chair the House during a roll call vote on funding for a United States delegation to the centennial celebrations of Peru's independence on June 20, 1921. It may seem like a small matter today, but this made her the first woman to hold that position. She returned to chair another roll call once more.

Robertson did accomplish a few things for her constituents. She secured funding for a small veterans’ hospital that opened in 1923.  She spoke up for the rights of the Creek people and for indigenous peoples in general, urging Congress to live up to its obligations via treaties. Her enthusiasm for “helping” the native communities grew from her childhood and adult work with them.

Yet Robertson routinely opposed legislation that would have helped those farmers, women, and veterans she’d promised she’d represent back in her café.  She was the only member of the House to oppose every part of the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921, claiming it would lead to interference in family life by the Federal government. In 1922 she opposed a popular Soldier’s Bonus Bill to help out WWI veterans. She even opposed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which had been originally introduced in 1918. Often Robertson claimed that a bill would give the government too much power, yet she also wrote amendments to bills that increased pay and housing benefits to active service Army and Navy nurses, who were mostly women.

How did a woman who opposed her own political rights end up in politics? To understand that, we have to look into Robertson’s background.

She was born to missionary parents in Tullahassee Mission, Creek Nation, Indian Territory, on June 2, 1854. Her parents, William and Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson, were teaching the indigenous children as a form of acculturation, though they would not have used that term. They certainly believed that their white Christian culture was better, yet they translated many of the works they used in their classes, including the Bible, into the Creek language rather forcing the students to study only in English. Robertson was “homeschooled” but went on to attend Elmira College.

Robertson never turned her back on her parents’ mission among the indigenous population and got her first job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. as a clerk from 1873 to 1879. From 1880, she moved to Pennsylvania to teach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and quickly rose through the ranks to become the secretary to the superintendent of the district, Richard H. Pratt.

From 1882-83, Robertson traveled and lectured about the need for education of the indigenous population. She used the funds she raised to moved back to Tullahassee and founded the Nuyaka Mission. In 1885, she was chosen to head a school for Indian girls. Her work throughout her term turned that school into the Henry Kendall College in 1894, and, in turn, it became the University of Tulsa.

Robertson’s work brought her to the notice of government officials, and she began to hold a series of appointed positions. She was government supervisor of Creek Indian schools from 1900 to 1905. Then she was named postmaster of Muskogee, Oklahoma, from 1905 to 1913, making her the first woman to hold such an office.

While she took advantage of her parents’ connections and made her own so that she could hold those unusual positions, she also opposed many women’s rights organizations. The only women’s group she seems to have been a member of was the Daughters of the American Revolution, which endorsed her bids for office.

After one term in the House of Representatives, she lost her bid for re-election to the man she had defeated. Interestingly, the women’s groups she had opposed and the KKK actively campaigned against her. However, President Harding appointed her to a job as a welfare worker at Veterans’ Hospital No. 90 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her harsh stance against some veteran legislation while she served in the House resulted in general dislike of her at the hospital, and she was forced to resign, but she continued to live in Muskogee on her farm.

In 1925, the Sawokla Café, where she supported herself, burned to the ground. She sometimes claimed that the fire had been set by her enemies, but if it was arson, she never reopened it to show them that they couldn’t scare her. She became dependent upon friends and family for her support after that point. In 1929, the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Oklahoma honored her by naming her a distinguished guest at their meeting. She died on July 1, 1931, at the age of 77 years.