As a fresh-faced young lady just out of college in 1918, Granbury’s Nellie Gray Robertson had some things cooking outside the kitchen.
At a time when women were still struggling to gain the right to vote, Robertson was elected in 1918 to be the first female county attorney in Texas history.
Her story was recently revived by the second woman elected county attorney in Hood County, Lori Kasper. A fascination with Nellie’s accomplishments led Kasper on an extensive research journey.
Prior to speaking about Robertson at a recent meeting of the Hood County Historical/Geneological Society, Kaspar told the Hood County News that it “took a lot of confidence and drive” to be such a trailblazing woman.
“I don’t think it’s as much about Nellie and me as this is an interesting story nobody knows about,” Kaspar said. “I don’t think I’m remarkable. I think (Nellie’s story is) remarkable. Hood County, Texas, of all places, had the first female county attorney and nobody seems to know about it.”
Women in Texas gained the right to vote in party primaries in 1918. But it wasn’t until two years later that the 19th Amendment made it the law for all elections, nationwide.
“She was quite a trailblazer,” local historian Karen Nace said, adding that Nellie would have held an even higher office – except for an overlooked detail.
“The governor appointed her to chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court,” Nace said.
That appointment was for a special appeal case in 1925, and Nellie would have served on an all-female state Supreme Court. However, it was learned that one requirement was to have at least seven years practicing law. Nellie had notched only six years and nine months, Kaspar said.
“She lacked experience,” Nace said. “She missed it by a couple of months.”
After five years of college in Austin, Nellie was elected for three two-year terms as county attorney (1918, 1920 and 1924), Kaspar said.
Nellie, a Democrat, was born Feb. 28, 1894, in Granbury.
Jean Robertson, 80, of Granbury, is one of the few surviving people who knew Nellie well. She recalled the attributes that served Nellie well in a man’s world.
“She was very strong and opinionated, and very aggressive,” she said. “She was one of the first women in the state admitted to the bar.”
Jean said although Nellie was almost 45 years older than her, she gained a strong admiration for her.
“She and I were very close friends. We had a lot of things in common,” said Jean, who became part of the family in 1953 when she married Nellie’s nephew, Lynn Robertson. “We both loved to work, and we were very aggressive.
“She put herself through the University of Texas. Her mother (Arminda Robertson) was one of the last Civil War widows in the country. Arminda lived on Travis Street, across from the old American Legion Hall. That’s where Nellie was raised.”
Several times in her later years after she moved to Beaumont, Jean drove Nellie back there after she visited Granbury.
“I enjoyed her very much,” Jean said of their conversations. “She talked about how hard it was being women, just then starting to come out of the kitchen.”
Before that, Nellie had lived in New York, where she wrote law books for Doubleday.
“But whatever she did, she was good at it,” Jean said. “She was very, very intellectual. Her IQ was very high.”
Another place Nellie excelled was at a poker table. Jean also enjoyed playing, but noted that Nellie, “was a shark” when chips were on the table.
Nellie was in Granbury on a trip from Beaumont when she passed away on May 20, 1955, Jean said.
“She was a woman who put out the effort to work her way through and make a place for herself,” Jean said. “She should be an inspiration to young people. She had to have put forth a lot of effort to go (to college).”
KASPAR IS SECOND WOMAN
Kaspar, 56, said she was “rather surprised” when she learned from Nace that she was going to become only the second woman in Hood County to serve as county attorney.
Kaspar said the requirements for holding that office in 1918 included having at least seven years practicing law, and being at least 30 years old. One more thing – the person must have never fought in a duel.
Kaspar, 56, met all the requirements – including never having a shoot-out with anyone along the way.
“No, I have not, but I have been licensed (to practice law) since 2005,” Kaspar quipped.
Kaspar was an assistant district attorney for 4-1/2 years for Hood County District Attorney Rob Christian. She was elected unopposed as county attorney after her opponent dropped out of the race last year. Before that, she served two years as assistant county attorney under Kelton Conner.
Kaspar, who moved to Hood County in 2009, was a teacher for 26 years. She managed the challenge of attending law school at night while still teaching. “I don’t know how I did it,” she said.
FAMILY REMEMBERS NELLIE
Henry Robertson, of Tolar, Hood County’s sheriff from 1972-80 and his brother, Tommy Robertston, of Granbury, said they weren’t close to their Aunt Nellie because when they knew her she didn’t live in Granbury. However, they do have fond memories of her as an aunt who gave great gifts when she came to visit.
“She was old enough to be our grandma,” Henry said. “I didn’t know she was anything special.”
“She was one of the first women to graduate from UT law school,” said Hood County resident Homer Robertston, 52, Nellie’s great nephew. He said her family was “dirt poor” – which made her path working through college all the more remarkable, “especially for a woman in Texas in the early 1900s.”
Tommy said their aunt’s historical significance was lost on them. “She was just an aunt. She didn’t talk about her business,” said Tommy, who was a Granbury City Council member from 1976-82. “Evidently she must have made a name for herself, and at the time we didn’t realize it.”
Thanks to research done by Kaspar and Nace, Nellie’s old story is new again.
[email protected] | 817-573-7066, ext. 254