On Nov 4, 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected governor of Wyoming, and became the first woman governor in the United States. Ross was elected a month after her husband, Governor William B. Ross, died suddenly of appendicitis.
On the day of her husband’s burial, the chairman of the state Democratic Committee asked a delicate question: Would Mrs. Ross consider running for governor herself? The election was a month away. Her supporters thought it was fitting that the first state to allow equal voting rights (Wyoming passed women’s suffrage in 1869) would also be the first to have a woman governor.
Over the next few days, as she and her brother George Tayloe went around and around on the question of whether she should run, he came to know his sister better. She was shocked and sorrowful over her husband’s sudden death, but she was also ambitious. “No one ever wanted it more,” George wrote to his wife. If she did run, she understood that ambition was a quality she would have to disguise. It just wasn’t seemly for a woman to look ambitious.
Nellie Tayloe Ross was a southern woman and, as an archetypal southern woman, she was gracious, funny and strongly loyal to her family and friends. She was also very intelligent. She came from Missouri, the border South, a complicated place for people like her who were born not long after the Civil War. Nellie came out of that place and time a complicated woman.
Her opponent in the election, Republican candidate Eugene J. Sullivan, a Casper lawyer, campaigned hard. Nellie, still deep in grief, did not. Her campaign was conducted by her backers who spoke widely and took out ads on her behalf. Despite her backseat approach to campaigning, she won the election. Ross was inaugurated on Jan. 5, 1925 as the first woman governor by only a few days—Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who had also been a state First Lady, was sworn in as governor of Texas just over two weeks after Ross took office.
Eleven days later after inauguration, now Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross appeared before the Legislature to review the progress of her late husband. The New York Times ran the headline, “Mrs. Ross Wears Hat Before Legislature,” and noted that she “defied precedent” by “wearing hat and gloves.” Other contemporary media accounts noted that she had “not lost her womanliness” and remained “ever feminine, never a feminist,” as noted in her Times obituary when she died in 1977. “Really, I dropped accidentally into politics,” she told the Times in 1926, saying she preferred taking a stroll along the boardwalk to discussing rumors of a 1928 bid for the Vice Presidency (which never materialized).
More than ninety years later, women politicians are still struggling with the balance of femaleness, ambition and power. As much as we may want to think we’re past caring how female politicians look, the 2016 election in which presidential candidate Donald Trump commented at the first debate that Hillary Clinton “…doesn’t have the look [to be president]” is an indication that looks are still a weapon to be wielded by the opposition. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) commented at the Real Simple/TIME Women & Success Panel in 2014, “When [a woman]’s appearance is commented on publicly during a campaign, it undermines her; it actually hurts her. And it doesn’t matter if the comment is positive or negative. It undermines her credibility.”
Ross also had to dispel the idea that she would use her power to rid the Wyoming government of men, and create an all-woman government (a 1925 man’s worst nightmare). Here’s what Time magazine reported in 1925 that she told the Associated Press when asked about her view of women in politics:
“It is most amusing and amazing to me, for example, to be asked, as I was soon after my election, whether I expected to appoint any men to office? This question, telegraphed to me from the East by a well-known metropolitan newspaper, had every indication of being quite sincere, and was apparently inspired by the fear that the elevation of women to executive office was likely to be followed by the dismissal of all men and the substitution of women in their places.”
Despite Nellie’s election as the first woman governor in the nation, at least one Wyoming woman of her time criticized Ross for not going far enough. In the papers of suffragette Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard of the University of Wyoming faculty there is a letter to national women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt declaring that the “outstanding reason” Nellie was defeated “was due to the advisors that Governor Ross selected, all men.”
But woman’s rights in the political arena were not Nellie Ross’ main concern. According to a WyoHistory.org article about Ross by Tom Rea, “She cared about her family, but she also cared deeply about getting things done in the public sphere. She followed her ambition, saw her opportunities, took up the power available to her, and used it.”
Nellie Tayloe Ross’s papers, including correspondence, news clippings, and photographs are at the American Heritage Center. Much of the material has been scanned and is available for browsing as part of the AHC’s online digital collection.
Credit is given to Tom Rea’s article “The Ambition of Nellie Tayloe Ross” on WyoHistory.org and Time magazine article (Nov. 4, 2014), “What We Can Learn From Nellie Tayloe Ross, America’s First Female Governor” for supplying text for this post.