Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nellie Tayloe Ross--the country's first woman governor!

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!

Coming Soon from The Wild Rose Press


  1. Tanya, this is just fascinating! I never heard of her, but my, what a story! I loved this post. She looks determined in her picture, but also like she'd be a nice person. I love these old pictures, don't you?

  2. Thanks, Cheryl. I love that she lived to be more than a 100, too. What a woman. She does sound very well-rounded and admirable, that's for sure. xo

  3. Wow! That's too cool. How brave she was to step into politics and continue on for her husband without any experience. Thanks for sharing about Nellie, Tanya. :-)

  4. Thanks for commenting today, Dora. She was in the "today's birthdays" i our local paper, and I reckoned she reserved a blog! Fascinating woman. There was a ton more,but I picked the most important.

  5. Interesting post, Tanya. I remember studying about her but didn't know about her deeds after her term as governor was over.

  6. Hi Linda, thanks for stopping by today. She was quite a public speaker, I think, and very active in the DNC. I was interested in that she wasn't a pusher for women's suffrage. She seemed so modern and intellectual.

  7. Tanya, I'd heard of Nellie, but really didn't know anything about her. Thanks for sharing information on such a remarkable woman.

  8. Tanya--this caught me by surprise because I thought Ma (Miriam) Ferguson was the first female governor of the nation..but no, she is the first female governor of Texas.
    Wyoming has had a glorius past in defending and upholding the rights of women. That has made me very proud of Wyoming.
    Funny, I thought about doing Ma Ferguson for March Women's Month, but decided to do Catherine Sager.
    Besides, poor Ma Ferguson was homely as can be, and Nellie was very pretty. Okay, that doesn't matter, does it?
    My maiden name is Davis...but there are about a jillion Davises in the country, and about half are black.
    Great topic. And thanks for switiching with Anna--she was overloaded!

  9. Wyoming...beautiful AND progressive! Who knew? Thanks for the education on Nellie Taylor Ross. Would Sheryl Sandberg be a force today without women like NTR?

  10. Seems only Wyoming saw the worth in women in politics. Like so many other firsts, it's wonderful to read about the first woman governor. A wonderful blog, Tanya.

  11. hi Caroline and Celia, my fellow Sweethearts...well, as you know. I've been gone. And I TRIED to comment from my smartphone. It said my google sign in isn't correct. WELL IT IS. Anyway, I tried. Glad you liked the post. And yes, Celia, "Ma" beat out Nelie by about three weeks. I didn't know about her either until this post. Another amazing Western woman. Well, of course both of them were.

  12. Hi Samantha, I'm like you. I think we owe a great deal to our foremothers. Whenever I read about what they accomplished, I feel like a big weenie.

  13. Thanks, Sarah. I think Wyoming was amazingly progressive. Well, a lot of the Western territories gave women the credence they always have deserved. There were fewer of them, for one thing, and most of them were so strong and resilient to survive, really showed their chops. Thanks for stopping by. xo


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