Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Nora (Mrs. A. H.) Roberts, 1868-1932

By Katherine M. Petrole, Director of Education, Nashville Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee

Brief descriptors:

Wife of Tennessee Governor A. H. Roberts who called assembly to ratify the 19th Amendment.


Nora Deane Bowden was born on February 6, 1868, in Jamestown, Tennessee. She was the only child of progressive parents Professor Bailey Owen "B.O." (Jan. 10, 1833-Jan. 23, 1926) and Mary Katherine "Molly" Sproul Bowden (Aug. 2, 1833-Jan. 3, 1912). Despite having six brothers in the Confederate army, Bailey joined the Union army and served in the 122nd Infantry of Illinois; Molly was also a Union sympathizer in a very Confederate area.

Continuing this progressive trend, both of Nora's parents also held college degrees. Her father earned his A. M. degree in 1874 while teaching Latin and Natural Sciences at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee. Her mother, known as "Miss Molly" studied and taught at the The Female Institute in Maryville, Tennessee; her well-received book A Civil War Diary is still available today at the Overton County Heritage Museum. Understandably, education played a central role in her family life and her father and mother spent their careers as educators.

Nora lived in Knoxville during part of her childhood, and reportedly studied music and piano at Hiwassee College. In her youth, she reportedly fell into a fire, causing a facial scar. She was known as an attractive and talented lady with a passion for music, sense of humor, and a loyal friend.

In April 1878, her father resigned from Hiwassee College and the family moved to Columbus, Kansas, where he continued his career as a teacher. This same town also happens to be where her future husband, Albert Houston Roberts (1868-1946), had lived as a young boy. Roberts also attended Hiwassee College, graduating in 1889. Albert and Nora married in Nashville on May 16, 1889.

One year and two days later, their first of five children, Maurice McVey Roberts, was born (May 18, 1890-Apr. 15, 1935). Sarah (Sadie) Dean Roberts (1895-1964) was followed by Allen Bowden Roberts (1898-1898), Albert Houston Roberts Jr. (1900- 1951), and Helen Lenore Roberts (1903-1963).

From 1889 until 1894, Nora's husband taught with her father at the Alpine School, located in Madisonville, Overton County, Tennessee. The school was later renamed the Alpine Institute during her husband's tenure as President, and was a good fit for the progressive Professor Bowden; it had been burned during the Civil War by Southern sympathizers and burned again by the Ku Klux Klan during post-war rebuilding. The Alpine Institute was only seven miles from Roberts's hometown of Livingston, TN, and for a while in 1900 the Roberts family lived with Nora's parents.

A. H. Roberts worked as a lawyer from 1894-1910 in Overton County, and then became Chancellor of Tennessee's 4th Judicial District from 1910-1918. Roberts won the 1918 election to become Governor of Tennessee and served from Jan. 1919-Jan. 1921. Among education-based initiatives such as extending the term of rural schools, Governor Roberts established a highway commission to increase the state's infrastructure and quite controversially reorganized the tax system. One of his first achievements was ratifying the 18th Amendment, supporting nationwide prohibition. As his gubernatorial term progressed, the long battle over woman suffrage reached its pinnacle in Nashville.

Earlier in his political career, he had spoken out against woman suffrage. However, political pressure including telegrams between Governor Roberts and President Wilson eventually convinced Roberts to convene the general assembly in August 1920 in order to vote to ratify or reject the 19th Amendment. Mrs. Roberts served on an Advisory Board in 1920 that worked for ratification of the Amendment. Despite strong momentum by anti-suffragists, Tennessee voted to ratify the 19th Amendment under Governor Roberts's leadership and became the "Perfect 36," the 36th state needed to ratify the amendment nationwide.

In 1920, Roberts lost to the Republican candidate for governor and resumed his legal practice in Nashville.

Nora Dean Bowden Roberts died May 14, 1932, after surviving a stroke seven weeks prior. She was buried two days later on her 43rd wedding anniversary. She was best known for her religious work at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Livingston where she served as the president of the Women's Missionary Society. Albert Houston Roberts died June 25, 1946, in Donelson, TN, and is buried in Livingston.

Images: none

Writings: none


"Albert Houston Roberts, Class of 1889."

"Bailey Owen Bowden, Class of 1875."

Braden, Kenneth S. "The Wizard of Overton: Governor A.H. Roberts." Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 1984, pp. 273-294. JSTOR,

"Catalog of Officers and Students of Hiwassee College, 1895-1896". Hiwassee College. Marshall and Bruce Co., printers and stationers: Nashville, TN, 1896.

"Gov. Albert Houston Roberts." National Governors Association.

"Governor A. H. Roberts Law Office." Explore Livingston.

Keith, Jeanette. "Albert H. Roberts." Tennessee Encyclopedia, Tennessee Historical Society. 8 October 2017. 18 June 2019.

Roberts-Gayden, Helen. "Foreword." Mary Katherine Sproul. A Civil War Diary. Overton County Heritage Museum. Livingston, TN: 2012.

Sims, Anastatia. "Woman Suffrage Movement." Tennessee Encyclopedia, Tennessee Historical Society. 8 October 2017. 18 June 2019.

"Stroke Fatal to Mrs. A. H. Roberts." Nashville Tennessean. Nashville, TN: 15 May 1932.

"Tennessee Death Index 1932, Part 13: Quackenboss-Rysden." Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Walker, Nancy Wooten. Out of a Clear Blue Sky: Tennessee's First Ladies and their Husbands. Cleveland, TN. First Edition, 1971.

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