A native of Cass County, Missouri, Henderson attended Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where she trained to be a teacher. When she moved with her husband to Buchanan County, in southwest Virginia, she was dismayed by the limited educational opportunities available in the area and was instrumental in founding the Baptist Mountain School, which opened in 1911. Because of her commitment to education and the leadership qualities she displayed as the school’s assistant principal, a group of local Democratic Party men invited her to run for the county’s assembly seat in 1923. “I’m not in the Legislature for publicity,” she explained that November. “It’s simply a question of public service with me, and a duty I owe to the people back in those counties which have elected me.”
The first woman ever to be nominated, Henderson proved to be a tireless campaigner and a talented public speaker. She won the election by more than 400 votes, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, despite “strenuous opposition from some independent Democrats, Republicans, and wets.” (In the terminology of the day, “wets” referred to people who opposed Prohibition.)
In the Virginia General Assembly of 1924, Henderson became an advocate for better schools and roads in southwestern Virginia. She was the first woman to preside over the House and served on four important committees: Roads and Internal Navigation; Counties, Cities, and Towns; Moral and Social Welfare; and Executive Expenditures. “She took a vigorous and important part in each of the committees,” according to her Richmond Times-Dispatch obituary, “and on the floor was one of the most respected and influential members of the House.”
Henderson died, however, in the summer of 1925, before she could stand for reelection. The flags at the capitol in Richmond were lowered to half-staff in her honor by order of Virginia governor, and a House resolution praised her “many virtues, clear vision and noble aspirations.”
A few years later her daughter Helen Ruth Henderson (1898–1982) ran for and won the seat her mother had held. Born in Tennessee and educated at Virginia Intermont College and Westhampton College, she began her teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse. She earned a PhD from Columbia University (writing her dissertation on the challenges facing educators in Buchanan County) and became head of the school her mother had founded. The younger Henderson was one of four women to serve in the General Assembly in the 1928 session.