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Oklahoma Journeys

Alice Mary Robertson

2010-01-02

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She was a teacher, social worker, public official, and politician. This week we celebrate the birthday of Alice Mary Robertson, the first woman elected to Congress from Oklahoma and only the second woman ever elected to Congress. She championed American Indian issues, opposed women's issues and the League of Nations. Alice Mary Robertson this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

Some 350 women were invited to hear Oklahoma's newly elected congresswoman speak on the important issues of the time at the Tulsa Town Club on February 8, 1921, and they were not disappointed to hear Alice Mary Robertson. She was a Republican and had just defeated a Democrat in Oklahoma's second district who was a Cherokee Indian. She was 66 years old when elected to Congress. Her campaign speeches included this statement "I cannot be bought, I cannot be sold, and I cannot be intimidated."

Alice Mary Robertson had already asserted herself in the public eye. She helped Theodore Roosevelt recruit soldiers for Troops L and M of the First Volunteer Cavalry, Roosevelt's Roughriders. Her parents were missionaries in the Creek Nation when she was born, and in her early years, she was self-taught and attended college in Elmira, New York, then taught school in Tullahassee, then at the Carlisle Indian School. She worked as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. She returned to the Indian Territory and taught at Okmulgee, started a mission, then headed a Presbyterian Boarding School for Indian girls. During World War One she founded the Muskogee chapter of the American Red Cross and ran a canteen service for soldiers passing through the area. She also was the Postmaster in Muskogee.

This would be for most women at the time a busy fulfilling life. But Alice wanted more. In 1920 she ran for Congress from Muskogee. By 1920, she was operating a cafeteria and the only political ads she ran were ads for her cafeteria buried in the classified section of the Muskogee newspapers. In all, she spent less than $3,000. During the campaign her cafeteria newspaper ads were must reading in Muskogee.

Arriving in Washington she immediately began to make her mark. She said that she would concentrate on legislation for Indians, women, farmers, soldiers, and working people, and no one else. Her first fight was against the Sheppard-Towner Bill or maternity bill, a bill she called "paternalistic" and said it "threatened to overthrow the American family." Supporters said it would save the lives of 12,000 mothers and 100,000 babies, but Miss Alice, as she was now known, refused to budge. The list of organizations supporting the bill read like a who's who groups, but Alice said "they are trying to scare me into support for the bill, but I can't be scared." Another issue that drew her attention was the proposed League of Nations. She spoke against the League saying that in the form Woodrow Wilson proposed it, the League was un-American. During her one term in Congress she stayed in controversy, then when she ran for reelection in 1922, she lost, but this week we remember her birth on January 2, 1854, in the Creek Nation. Alice Mary Robertson, the first woman from Oklahoma to serve in Congress.

You can learn more about the interesting personalities who have served in public office in Oklahoma by visiting the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.