by Tanya Hanson
I’ve always been intrigued that Wyoming allowed women to vote far sooner than anyplace else--1869. So maybe it’s not a surprise that Wyoming elected the nation’s first woman governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977). However, she never set out to be a politician. She truly believed a woman’s calling was home and family. Then her husband’s unexpected death thrust her into the political arena.
Her husband William Bradford Ross, a Democratic governor in a Republican state, died from complications of an appendectomy in October 1924.
Wyoming law required his successor be chosen in the general election scheduled a month later. When Dem party leaders offered Nellie the nomination to fill the remainder of her husband’s term, she did not reply. Her silence was taken as agreement. She was nominated on October 14 despite having no political experience and having played no real support for women’s suffrage. Later, she claimed she accepted the nomination because she believed she understood her husband’s goals and aspirations better than anybody else.
Missouri-born Nellie Davis Tayloe had prominent southern connections and her mother claimed distant kinship with George Washington. After the family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, she obtained a teaching certificate and taught kindergarten before her marriage. On a visit to Tennessee relatives, she met and fell in love with William.
The young lawyer moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming before marrying Nellie in 1902. While devoted to her husband and three sons (one died at ten months of age), Nellie was active in intellectual self-enrichment programs for the Cheyenne’s Women’s Club.
Upon her nomination, Nellie did not campaign for office, other than two open letters. Many voted for her as a tribute to her late husband. However, other citizens wanted Wyoming to have the first woman governor, not only as respect for its longstanding voting rights for women, but as a last chance to have the distinction: Miriam Ferguson, the wife of Texas’s impeached governor, was running in his stead in the 1924 election.
Although Nellie handily won as Wyoming’s 14th governor, 1924 was a catastrophic election year for Democrats. She graciously accepted that the Republican-controlled legislature was unlikely to work with her. Still wearing her mourning garb, Nellie Tayloe Ross was inaugurated on January 5, 1925. (Miriam Ferguson was not inaugurated until January 25.) Ross’s brief speech promised a continuation of her husband’s role, rather than a new start.
Among her heartfelt causes, Nellie fought unsuccessfully for Wyoming to ratify the federal amendment prohibiting child labor, and sought state assistance for the faltering agricultural industry. She urged banking reform and bemoaned the difficulties of enforcing Prohibition. She stood her ground to the federal government on water rights. As an administrator, she received mixed reviews and did not win re-election in 1926.
Although she did not seek public office again, Nellie was not done. A prominent and popular lecturer, she forayed onto the national stage as a Wyoming committeewoman to the Democratic National Convention. In 1929, she seconded the presidential nomination for the governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith and traveled the country speaking on his behalf.
In 1933, Franklin D Roosevelt wanted to be the first president to appoint women to his cabinet, and considered Nellie Tayloe Ross for either Secretary of the Interior of Secretary of Labor. However, she was chosen Director of the Mint, the first woman so appointed. Upon discovering that gold and silver coins were still being struck by hand, she established automation. Her efficiency pared 3,000 employees from the roster of 4,000.
Until Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, Ross remained Director of the Mint. She lived in Washington D.C. when she died December 19, 1977. Another strong woman of the West!
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