Helen Henderson. Courtesy of Library of Virginia.
Helen Henderson. Courtesy of Library of Virginia.

A rambunctious horse in Tennessee changed the course of history in Virginia. 

The horse’s name was Daisy but the more important name is that of its rider: Helen Timmons.

Sometime in the 1890s, she was a student at Carson Newman College, where “riding was one of her dearest hobbies,” according to a biography published in the Virginia Mountaineer newspaper.

One day, Daisy almost ran over one of Timmons’ professors, a certain Robert Henderson. That encounter led to a conversation, the exact nature of which isn’t clear, but it soon led to the two riding horses together, what we might today call a date. (Best not dwell too much on the propriety of a professor dating a student; those were different days.) The professor’s horse was Bucephalus, but that’s not the name that’s important, either. What’s important is that Helen Timmons soon became Helen Timmons Henderson and her husband rose within the college hierarchy to eventually become a dean.

In 1907, Dean Henderson became President Henderson at Franklin Female Seminary in Southampton County, Virginia. Four years later, another school beckoned — or, more accurately, a prospective school. The community of Council in Buchanan County wanted a school and somehow made contact with President Henderson. He, his wife and their two children went to investigate this new opportunity. That meant a train ride to St. Paul, then another train to Honaker and, well, after that, they were on their own. In Honaker, the Hendersons found someone who would take them over the mountain in his wagon, according to the Virginia Mountaineer account. They paid $6 for the 11-mile trip. It took 10 hours.

An account in The Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia described the arduous journey: The Hendersons had brought only cheese and crackers to eat, although they apparently stopped along the way to eat some apples from a tree near the roadside and drink water from a nearby spring. The wagon driver had to borrow a team of mules to make the summit of the mountain; the passengers had to get out to lighten the load. Going down the mountain on the other side was considered more dangerous than going up. 

What the Hendersons found in Council was a very different environment than the refined campuses they’d been accustomed to. Running the Buchanan County Mission School, which opened in August 1911, became a family affair, with Helen Henderson as the school’s assistant principal. She was shocked by the conditions she found in the area. “Sanitary conditions were bad and many of the people did not know any remedies from sickness and suffering other than those handed down to them from their ancestors,” the Virginia Mountaineer wrote. Helen Henderson had been trained as a teacher but her grandfather had been a doctor and from him she had learned a few things. “She applied her knowledge wisely among her mountain-bound neighbors,” the paper wrote. “She was soon looked upon as a person endowed with superior ability to ease the dying and bring the afflicted back to good health.” For this, she earned an unofficial title in the community: “Mother Henderson.”

A dozen years later, she acquired a more official one: Delegate Henderson.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote. In 1921, in the first state elections after ratification, at least nine women ran for the General Assembly. All lost. Two years later, in 1923, came another round of state elections. Democratic Party leaders in Buchanan County and Russell County were searching for a candidate for the House of Delegates. They approached one of the best-known and most respected people in the community. They approached Mother Henderson.

She declined. The men persisted. (The Virginia Mountaineer refers to “much persistence.”) Eventually, Helen Henderson relented. (From this point on, when I refer to “Henderson,” she’s the one I mean.) Once Henderson set her mind to something, she intended to do it well. She turned her duties at the school over to her daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, and set about the business of campaigning. “In a Ford roadster she flamed through the district day by day, often speaking twice daily at points far apart,” The Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia said. 

Virginia then was a strongly Democratic state (conservative Democrats, in those days), but what passed for a Republican Party was competitive in parts of Southwest Virginia. The congressman from Southwest Virginia then was a Republican — C. Bascom Slemp from Lee County. That made this district competitive, and the notion of a woman running for office was not universally accepted. Just two years before, the Clinch Valley News in Tazewell County had editorialized against the idea: “It should be enough that the women vote quietly, and exert their influence at the polls for such reforms as they believe the times demand. A wife or mother is decidedly out of her element when she enters into political contests.” Now here was one out barnstorming, drawing what the Richmond Times-Dispatch called “strenuous opposition” from not just Republicans, but also unhappy Democrats. “The lady candidate,” as she was known, was a definite novelty. If that’s what Democratic Party leaders were hoping for, they were not disappointed. 

Election Day was Nov. 6 but it took two days for the results to reach Council: Henderson had won, and by a sizable margin. (I haven’t been able to find the exact totals, but contemporary news accounts said she won easily.) 

Sarah Fain. Official Generaly Assembly photo.
Sarah Fain. Official General Assembly photo.

On the other side of the state, so had another woman: Sarah Fain in Norfolk. Together, they became the first two women elected to the General Assembly.

They also became the object of curiosity. A week after her election, Henderson was in Richmond, attending a Baptist convention. The Richmond Times-Dispatch sent correspondent Virginia Lee Cox to interview her. Cox wrote that Henderson has “no time at all to be puffed up with the pride of her achievements.”

“But I haven’t done anything,’ she protested good-naturedly when I met her on the steps of the First Baptist Church for an interview. ‘My people did it all, you know. Why I haven’t done anything at all. And besides, I’m not in the legislature for publicity. It’s simply a question of public service with me, and a duty I owe to the people back in those mountains which have elected me.’”

In the story, Cox attributed Henderson’s victory to her former students, “who are now grown up, but whom she once taught and mothered in her big heart.” That’s the closest to any political analysis of Henderson’s victory that I’ve been able to find. and from a distance of a century, it doesn’t seem wrong: All politics is local, as the saying goes.

The House of Delegates that Henderson and Fain entered in January 1924 was one of the highwater marks of Democratic control: The House consisted of 97 Democrats and three Republicans, a figure matched only by the House that convened in 1940.

Newspapers of that era often referred to the legislators by their husband’s names — Mrs. Walter C. Fain and Mrs. Robert Anderson Henderson. When they took their seats, roses were waiting for them. The curiosity over how they would fare in what was then the ultimate boy’s club was soon answered.

Henderson was determined to win a new judgeship for her district. One delegate moved to send the bill back to committee, effectively killing it. (The reasons why are unclear, but may have been the expense of paying a new judge.)

“Mrs. Henderson took the floor with as much assurance as any veteran member of the body,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. “Her clear, pleasant voice carried well in the big hall. But this ‘maiden’ speech was distinguished by the forceful manner in which the facts were marshaled and the convincing logic with which they were presented.”

Henderson gave a speech I can imagine legislators from Southwest Virginia giving today: “I wonder if you know my county borders Kentucky for twenty miles and West Virginia for thirty miles? I wonder if you are familiar with the conditions in these border counties?” She went on to blame bootleggers from those states with creating a need for an additional judge, citing 2,239 pending cases before the current judge, who she said hadn’t taken a vacation in 20 years. Her argument carried the day — “Mrs. Henderson Wins Her Fight,” the Times-Dispatch headlined. It was a temporary victory; the House may have approved the extra judgeship but the state Senate did not. 

Some political observers at the time wondered how much of their time the two women would devote to “women’s issues.” The answer seems to be very little. Fain focused on maritime issues and education. Henderson declared her priorities to be “first for Buchanan and Russell counties, second for Southwest Virginia and third for Virginia as a whole.” Her priorities weren’t much different from Southwest legislators today: roads and schools. 

One of the first things Henderson did upon arriving in Richmond was to seek out the state’s highway officials and make a pitch for better roads, including one across the mountain she had first ridden into Council on. Henderson was persuasive there, too; highway officials granted her request. Even her famous arguments for that extra judge in Buchanan County included a pitch for better roads. Or any roads. “When I go to court, I ride 23 miles over the mountain on horseback,” she said. “It takes five hours on a good saddle-horse.” At some point during the session, when the speaker of the House was away, Henderson became the first woman to preside over the chamber. Henderson seems to have made a good impression in Richmond. She certainly made one back home: She was easily renominated for reelection. 

Sadly, she never lived to see it. In the spring of 1925, she fell ill. By July, she was dead. She was only 48. Gov. E. Lee Trinkle ordered state flags to half-staff. “She took a vigorous and important part in each of the committees,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in its obituary, “and on the floor was one of the most respected and influential members of the House.” 

Two years later, Henderson’s daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson, was elected to the seat, making the Hendersons the first mother-daughter duo in any state legislature in the country. Fain stayed on for three terms — making her the first woman to be reelected to a state legislature in the South — then retired. For a time there were four women in the House at the same time — Nancy Melvina Caldwell of Galax and Sallie Booker of Martinsville were the other two. And then there were none. Not a single woman was elected to the General Assembly from 1933 to 1953, when the process of electing women to the General Assembly began all over again.

Today, the Buchanan County Mission School that the Hendersons ran is no more (it was different from the Mountain Mission School in Grundy that still very much operates). However, there’s a section of highway in Buchanan County that’s named in Henderson’s honor. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Henderson’s and Fain’s elections to the House of Delegates. And today is Henderson’s birthday (well, maybe; some sources say today, her gravestone lists another date; many historical sources err on the side of caution and just say “born 1877.”) Whenever her birthday is, this is indisputably the centennial of her election. How should we celebrate it?

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...