By Susan Floyd, Archivist
In 1927, two years after Miriam “Ma” Ferguson became the state’s first woman governor, four years after Edith Wilmans entered the Texas House of Representatives as the first woman in the Legislature, and only eight years after Texas women’s suffrage rights were acknowledged and enforced by the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, Margie Neal became, as Governor Allan Shivers said at Margie Neal Appreciation Day in Carthage in 1952, “the first woman to invade the masculine sanctity of the Texas Senate.”
Margie Elizabeth Neal was born in 1875 in Clayton, Panola County, Texas, to William Lafayette and Martha Anne Gholston Neal. Later in life, she recalled that her interest in politics was sparked at age ten, when she saw then-Governor John Ireland speak in Carthage in 1885 or 1886. She attended, but did not graduate from, Sam Houston State Teachers College.
In the spring of 1893, Neal earned a first-grade teaching certificate and began her career in the Mount Zion community in east Panola County. She subsequently taught in several schools, including in Forney, Scottsville, Marlin and Fort Worth, before returning home to Carthage in 1904 to be the primary caregiver of her mother, whose health was failing. However, this move also provided her a new professional opportunity. From 1904 to 1911, Neal was publisher and editor of the Carthage East Texas Register. A large portion of the newspaper’s content was editorial writing. Neal used its pages to champion the establishment of a Y.M.C.A. in Carthage, push for city clean-up and tree-planting projects, argue for the creation of a chamber of commerce and press for improvements to county roads. But the Register’s most consistent editorial interest was in public education. As editor, Neal argued for improvements to school facilities and sponsored scholarships to local business colleges.
From 1912, her mother’s health worsened, and Neal was forced into semi-retirement for four years. Despite these family obligations Margie Neal was also instrumental in the founding and development of both the Carthage Circulating Book Club from 1907 and the Panola County Fair, first held in 1916. Her interest in women’s suffrage also continued to grow, and she became secretary of the Panola County Equal Suffrage Association.
In 1918, the Texas Legislature recognized women’s right to vote in state primary elections. In an effort to bolster women’s turnout in Panola County, Margie Neal ordered professionally printed buttons reading “I have registered” and distributed them among women. At the end of the 1918 voting drive, more than 500 women in the county had registered. Margie Neal was, unsurprisingly, the first woman to cast a vote in Panola County.
Margie Neal was the first woman to serve as a member of the State Teachers Colleges board of regents (1921-1927) and the first woman to serve as a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee in 1918. She was also a delegate to the 1920 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. In 1922 and 1924, she turned down first Governor Pat Neff’s and then Governor Miriam Ferguson’s offer to appoint her Secretary of State.
Neal’s work as a regent was the primary impetus for her 1926 Senate run. She was a frequent visitor to Austin during legislative sessions; in an interview later in life, she recalled a specific visit during which she became concerned about the direction certain legislation was heading, leading her to think to herself, “If I had a vote… I might do more for education than I am doing as a college regent sitting in the gallery.” She returned to Carthage and sought advice from trusted colleagues, family, and friends, then decided, in March 1926, that she would run for the Texas Senate from District 2.
This district included Panola, Harrison, Gregg, Rusk and Shelby Counties. Neal’s only opponent in the Democratic primary was Gary B. Sanford of Rusk County, who had prior experience as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Neal launched her campaign on June 12 in the Carthage County Courthouse, followed by five weeks of intensive campaigning in all five counties of the district. Her platform consisted of four components: better public schools—especially rural schools, to be achieved through an increased per capita apportionment; an improved state highway system, to be achieved through a new gasoline tax; more aid for farmers, labor, and capital; and a streamlining of laws for improved law enforcement. In the end, Neal defeated Sanford in every county but his own, and, facing no opponent in the general election, was elected to the Senate on July 28, 1926.
Phebe K. Warner, a reporter at the San Saba News, heralded Neal’s election with a glowing piece of Progressive Era journalism, saying:
…East Texas goes straight forward and elects a woman to the Senate. What can such action indicate? First of all it seems to indicate that the old-fashioned prejudice against women’s presence or power in a political position has vanished. And the men of East Texas, anyway, are too big and too broad to allow the misfortunes or mistakes of one woman to stand in the way of service another woman might render her State. Another thing, the election of Margie Neal to the State Senate process is loyalty to a home woman for duties well performed.
Margie Neal of Carthage, Texas, did not bob up politically. She did not even come out. She was brought out by her home people. She did not offer herself a living sacrifice for the vindication of anything or anybody. She was not elected because of any bitter feeling toward anybody else. She was not a victim of some selfish scheme on the part of anybody. She did not “run” purely because she was a woman and just wanted to find out if a woman could run and how far. Margie Neal won the election for the State Senate purely on efficiency and fitness for the service it demands.
Other headlines of the 1926 election season included, “Wonder If Chivalry Will Cause East Texas Men To Vote for Woman Candidate” (Port Arthur News, April 3, 1926), “Women’s Duty as Citizens Told: Miss Margie Neal Says Her Sex Should Assume Responsibilities” (San Antonio Light, December 9, 1926), and “Woman Occupies Seat of Power in Senate for First Time in Texas History” (Paris Morning News, February 18, 1927).
In the 40th Legislature, Senator Neal served as chair of the Committee on Privileges and Elections, the Committee on Rules, and the Committee on the State Song (which chose William J. Marsh’s “Texas, Our Texas” in 1929); but perhaps her biggest contribution was as vice chair of the Committee on Educational Affairs, where she worked tirelessly for higher standards in teacher certification, educational administration, and curriculum content.
One of the first bills she introduced was a repeal of the portion of the 1910 Fairchild Law which allowed any person who has six years or more of teaching experience with a first-grade certificate to receive a permanent certificate. Neal viewed this as a major obstacle to quality education in the state. However, on second reading, Senator Thomas B. Love of Dallas offered and secured an amendment that would grant a teacher a certificate if he or she had taught “six or more successive years immediately preceding the issuance thereof.” This amendment thus negated Senator Neal’s bill, rendering it a restatement of the Fairchild Law it was originally intended to repeal.
Ultimately, Neal voted no on final passage, leading Texas newspapers to report that “Parliamentary complexities overwhelmed Senator Margie Neal of Carthage and she voted against one of her own bills.” The next day on the floor of the Senate, Neal rose on a point of personal privilege and explained her vote. According to biographer Walter L. Harris, “She acknowledged a certain unfamiliarity with parliamentary technicalities and requested the continued patience and forbearance of her colleagues. She stated emphatically, however, that she desired no quarter from the gentlemen merely because she was a woman. The manner in which she spoke drew the spontaneous applause of fellow senators, and possibly went far toward making her acceptance by the Senate a reality.”
Margie Neal went on to serve two four-year terms in the Texas Senate—the only woman in the Legislature in 1927 and the only woman senator throughout her entire tenure. From the 41st Legislature through the 43rd (1929-1933), she was chair of the Committee on Educational Affairs, where she was instrumental in the passage of significant pieces of legislation including: introducing the bill that established the State Board of Education, sponsoring a bill that introduced physical education classes into public schools, and shepherding passage of the bill that appropriated the largest amount of rural education funding in Texas history to date. She also helped pass legislation that required the publication of unofficial election returns in all Texas elections (an effort to reduce the potential for election fraud), as well as legislation that provided for rehabilitative services for people with disabilities. From 1931 through 1934, she was also involved with the work of the Texas Centennial Committee, and she served as President Pro Tempore, Ad Interim of the Senate for both the 41st and 43rd Legislatures. Despite being a sitting senator herself, she was also a charter member of the Senate Ladies’ Club in 1927 and is listed among the attendees in meeting minutes from the period. Neal also remained active in party politics and again served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Houston in 1928 and in Chicago in 1932, when she campaigned for the Roosevelt-Garner ticket.
Because her own financial situation was becoming precarious owing to her personal obligations and low pay as a state senator, Neal decided not to seek a third term. Fortunately, due to her work on the Roosevelt campaign she was in line for a federal appointment once the new administration took office in March 1933. Neal did not want to abandon her constituents through early resignation, so she served out her term, including two special sessions in the spring of 1934, before assuming an appointment with the National Recovery Administration in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1934. However, two more special sessions were called, in August-September and October-November 1934. The National Recovery Administration granted Senator Neal a leave of absence (without pay) to return to Texas. As she explained in a letter to Congressman Morgan G. Sanders that September, “…my duty was here [in Austin]; that the people of my district would be fully justified in saying I had left them in the lurch at the end, had I not come.” It would be another 12 years before another woman, Maribelle Stewart of Houston, served in the Texas Senate.
Shortly after taking up her new position at the National Recovery Administration, Neal was promoted to chief of the women’s section of the consumer division, where she remained employed until the United States Supreme Court invalidated the agency in 1935. In early 1936, she began a new job as a technical adviser for the informational service of the Social Security Board. After five months, she received a transfer to the Social Security Board office in San Antonio, where she stayed until 1943. Because of her legislative experience, she was detailed to Austin to “foster the enactment of state legislation favorable to the operation of the Social Security Board.” She spent much of 1937 and 1938 working to secure the passage of state level legislation establishing certain cooperative measures of the Social Security system. Neal spent the entirety of 1939 in San Francisco, supervising the Social Security Board’s exhibit at the United States Golden Gate International Exhibition, giving lectures and demonstrations, talking with visitors, and distributing promotional literature. She then returned to San Antonio, where she worked for another three and a half years. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, she also remained active in women’s organizations across Texas and Louisiana.
The United States’ entry into World War II prompted Neal to seek employment more directly related to the war effort. So, in the summer of 1943, she moved to Dallas and began working as an information specialist with the War Manpower Commission. Her role was initially focused on contacting women’s groups to recruit women into defense-related jobs, but soon expanded into promoting community services to support those women, including a public awareness campaign for the necessity of childcare facilities.
By late 1944, Neal was considering retirement. She owned property in and around Carthage, where natural gas deposits had recently been discovered in 1943 and 1944, so she decided to return to Panola County to manage these and other property interests. However, retirement for Margie Neal was no time of civic or social withdrawal. She remained highly active in local affairs, including as a member of the 1948 Carthage city centennial committee, the Carthage Circulating Book Club, the Altrusa Club, the Panola County Hospital Board, and the committee that wrote Carthage’s new city charter.
Freed from the political constraints of being a federal employee, the “retired” Neal again became active in local, state, and national politics. In 1948, she actively campaigned for Lyndon B. Johnson in his first run for United States Senate, introducing him at a large political rally in Longview. She was also campaign chair for the Harry Truman-Alben Barkley campaign in Texas Senate District 2. Both campaigns proved successful. Later that year, she again attended the State Democratic Convention in Fort Worth. Thirty years after first serving, she was once again elected as a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee. She attended again in 1952, the same year she joined “Democrats for Eisenhower.” This marked the beginning of a period of activism in support of conservative Democrats and, eventually, Republicans; Neal introduced Richard Nixon at campaign rallies throughout East Texas.
That same May, a group of Carthage residents decided to organize an event to honor Senator Neal’s service; June 16, 1952, was Margie Neal Appreciation Day in Carthage. Several hundred people attended an open-air program in the high school stadium, where Neal was honored by speeches from many citizens of Panola County, as well as Governor Allan Shivers, United States Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, former Director of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and editor of the Houston Post Oveta Clup Hobby, and Attorney General Price Daniel. Hobby called for “… another generation led by stalwarts—by pioneers—however gentle, however persuasive, whose strength is of the mind; whose heroism is of the mind—as Miss Margie.”
Margie Neal died on December 19, 1971, in Carthage, aged 96. She is buried at the Oddfellows Cemetery there.
Sources and further reading:
Harris, Walter L. The Life of Margie E. Neal, MA thesis, University of Texas, 1955.
“NEAL, MARGIE ELIZABETH,” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fne02
“Margie E. Neal,” Texas Legislators: Past and Present, Legislative Reference Library of Texas. https://lrl.texas.gov/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=1958&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=neal~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee=
Margie E. Neal Papers, 1875-1953, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utcah/01817/cah-01817.html
Senate Ladies Club records. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tslac/90034/tsl-90034.html
Harris, Walter L. (1973) “Margie E. Neal: First Woman Senator in Texas,” East Texas Historical Journal: Vol. 11: Iss. 1, Article 9. http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/ethj/vol11/iss1/9
Warner, Phebe K. “Texas’ First Woman Senator,” San Saba News, October 7, 1926. Newspaper Archive: https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/san-saba/san-saba-news/1926/10-07/page-2/margie-neal?psi=94&pci=7&ndt=by&py=1920&pey=1930&psb=relevance
“Wonder If Chivalry Will Cause East Texas Men To Vote for Woman Candidate,” Port Arthur News, April 3, 1926. Newspaper Archive https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/port-arthur/port-arthur-news/1926/04-03/page-4/margie-neal-gary-sanford?psb=relevance&pci=7&psi=94&ndt=by&py=1920&pey=1929
“Woman Occupies Seat of Power in Senate for First Time in Texas History,” Paris Morning News, February 18, 1927. Newspaper Archive: https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/paris/paris-morning-news/1927/02-18?tag=margie+neal+gary+sanford&rtserp=tags/margie-neal-gary-sanford?page=2&psi=94&pci=7&ndt=by&py=1920&pey=1929
“Miss Margie Neal Candidate for Senate,” Texas Brief News, Stamford American, July 1, 1926. Newspaper Archive: https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/stamford/stamford-american/1926/07-01/page-12/margie-e-neal?psi=94&pci=7&ndt=by&py=1920&pey=1929&psb=relevance
“Texas Seats First Woman Senator,” Alpine Sul Ross Skyline, February 2, 1927. Newspaper Archive: https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/alpine/alpine-sul-ross-skyline/1927/02-02/page-11/margie-neal?psi=94&pci=7&ndt=by&py=1920&pey=1930&psb=relevance
“Women’s Duty as Citizens Told: Miss Margie Neal Says Her Sex Should Assume Responsibilities”
San Antonio Light, December 9, 1926.
Newspaper Archive: https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/san-antonio/san-antonio-light/1926/12-09/page-19/margie-neal?psi=94&pci=7&ndt=by&py=1920&pey=1930&psb=relevance
 House Bill 105, 34th Legislature, 4th Called Session, https://lrl.texas.gov/legis/billsearch/BillDetails.cfm?billFileID=210598&from=advancedsearch&startrow=1&number=50&IDlist=&unclickList=
 Harris, Walter L. The Life of Margie E. Neal, p. 95.
 “Texas’ First Woman Senator,” by Phebe K. Warner, San Saba News, October 7, 1926
 “Overnight News of Texas Towns,” Laredo Daily Times, February 8, 1927
 Senate Ladies Club records. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tslac/90034/tsl-90034.html
 43rd Legislature, 3rd Called Session, 1934 https://lrl.texas.gov/sessions/sessionSnapshot.cfm?legSession=43-3; 43rd Legislature, 4th Called Session, 1934 https://lrl.texas.gov/sessions/sessionSnapshot.cfm?legSession=43-4