Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Sally Berkeley Nelson Robins (18 March 1855–4 February 1925), writer and woman suffrage activist, was born in Gloucester County, Virginia, and was the daughter of a physician, William Wilmer Nelson, and Sally B. Catlett Nelson. She attended the Eclectic Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and on 23 May 1878 married William Todd Robins, a widowed Confederate cavalry officer with one daughter. They had three sons, one of whom died in childhood, and three daughters.

Early in the 1890s Robins, her husband, and their growing family moved to Richmond. In 1893, when Robins published a brief history of Gloucester County, she became assistant librarian for the Virginia Historical Society, a position that allowed her to use her skills as a genealogist and historical researcher. As a socially prominent woman with deep Virginia roots, she fit in well with the visitors to the historical society. As genealogical editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Robins also wrote a weekly column of carefully researched family histories and responses to various queries from readers. She was a member of numerous hereditary organizations and served as secretary and a vice president of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (later Preservation Virginia), historian and a vice president for the Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia, and also as historian for the National Society of the Colonial Dames in America. She served as secretary of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well.

Robins began to write fiction some time after her husband died on 28 October 1906. Her first novel, Scuffles, was published in 1912. According to a grandson, the genteel but impoverished heroine in the novel was based largely on Robins's life. In 1914 Robins resigned her position at the Virginia Historical Society and devoted the last decade of her life to historical research and writing. Her second novel, A Man's Reach, appeared in 1916, and her most popular book, Love Stories of Famous Virginians, was published in 1923.

Along with several family members Robins became involved in the woman suffrage movement in Virginia and joined the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, which had been formed in 1909. She was a vice president of the Equal Suffrage League's Richmond chapter from 1916 to 1918. She was one of seven contributing editors to the short-lived Virginia Suffrage News published in 1914. In December 1915 Robins was part of a delegation that marched to the governor's mansion to request that Governor Henry Carter Stuart endorse an equal suffrage amendment to the state constitution. Stuart stated that "this is the most numerous and by far the most attractive delegation that has waited on me since I have been Governor," and he promised to sign the suffrage amendment if the General Assembly passed it. The assembly did not pass a suffrage resolution in the 1916 session, after which the league shifted its work toward the passage of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Robins gave speeches, attended conventions, and made other public appearances on behalf of woman suffrage. During World War I, she supported the war effort as a representative of the Equal Suffrage League, and she led war bond drives and local food-rationing campaigns. Following ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Robins joined the Virginia League of Women Voters, helping publish the Virginia Cookery Book: Traditional Recipes in 1921 as a fund-raiser, and served as a vice president of the Richmond league.

Soon after the end of the war Robins joined women from across the state who attended the convention called to establish the Virginia Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and she wrote a five-page essay for the Virginia War History Commission on the effect of war on women. The article, which was not published, combined her support of suffrage with a defense of employment opportunities for women. "There have always been efficient women in their own especial spheres, but there have not always been enough 'especial spheres' and often a lot of soul-destroying idleness," she wrote. "The status of women since the war gives to greater general consideration, she has more political importance," Robins continued, arguing that a woman's role "is not just to follow, she may lead whenever she finds herself capable of doing so." Although Robins believed that men rightfully ruled the world, perhaps her work outside of the home gave her a sense of the potential of "unshackled womanhood."

With the success of her books, Robins enjoyed traveling during her later years, spending time in California and visiting Europe in the summer before her death. Sally Berkeley Nelson Robins died of uremia as a result of kidney disease on 4 February 1925 at Stuart Circle Hospital in Richmond. She was buried at Ware Episcopal Church Cemetery in Gloucester County.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in John William Leonard, ed., Woman's Who's Who of America, 1914–1915 (1915), 694, Everywoman's Magazine 1 (1917): 54, with portrait, and Barbara J. Griffin, "Sally Nelson Robins: Scuffler and Colonial Dame," Richmond Quarterly 5 (1982): 17–23; Sally Nelson Robins Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va.; Gloucester Co. Marriage Register 1, p. 147; Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia (LVA); Alexandria Gazette, 10 Dec. 1915 (first quotation) and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 17 Mar. and 4 June 1915, 8 June, 20 Sept., and 7 Oct. 1917, 27 June 1919; Richmond Evening Dispatch, 13 Apr. 1921; feature article in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7 Oct. 1923; Danville Bee, 5 Jan. 1924; principal publications include Gloucester: One of the First Chapters of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1893), Scuffles (1912), A Man's Reach (1916), and Love Stories of Famous Virginians (1923); Robins, "The Effect of War on Status and Outlook of Women," (second and third quotations), Virginia War History Commission Records, Accession 37219, Record Group 66, LVA; Virginia League of Women Voters, Virginia Cookery Book: Traditional Recipes (1921), fourth quotation on dedication page; Virginius Cornick Hall Jr., "The Virginia Historical Society: An Anniversary Narrative of Its First Century and a Half," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (VMHB) 90 (1982): 71–72; "Proceedings," VMHB 22 (1915): v; Death Certificate, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, LVA; obituary in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5 Feb. 1925; obituary and editorial tribute in Richmond News Leader, 5 Feb. 1925.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Frances S. Pollard.

How to cite this page:
Frances S. Pollard, "Sally Berkeley Nelson Robins (1855–1925)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2017 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Robins_Sally_Berkeley_Nelson, accessed [today's date]).

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