First Female Governor in the United States

With Nellie Tayloe Ross’s inauguration, Wyoming became the first U.S. state to have a female governor.

Summary of Event

The unexpected death of Governor William Bradford Ross on October 2, 1924, provided the opportunity for his wife, Nellie Tayloe Ross, to establish her place in the history of Wyoming and the United States. William Ross, a Democrat, had been elected to a four-year term as governor of Wyoming in November, 1922. His victory resulted from a split in the state’s dominant Republican Party between liberals and conservatives. The liberal Republicans decided to support Ross, and thus a Democrat was elected governor of a state where nearly 70 percent of the voters considered themselves to be Republicans. Ross saw himself as a political progressive, but he focused heavily on such traditional Wyoming interests as farm policies and law and order. Although he confronted a solidly Republican state legislature, Ross was a popular governor when he was stricken with appendicitis in late September, 1924. Surgeons removed his appendix, but the surgery brought about a secondary infection that caused his death on October 2, 1924. Ross’s death came as a shock to Wyoming citizens, who poured out their sympathy to Ross’s widow. It was primarily this sympathy, and the Democratic Party’s wish to take advantage of it, that brought Nellie Tayloe Ross to the nation’s attention. [kw]First Female Governor in the United States (Jan. 5, 1925)
[kw]Female Governor in the United States, First (Jan. 5, 1925)
[kw]Governor in the United States, First Female (Jan. 5, 1925)
[kw]United States, First Female Governor in the (Jan. 5, 1925)
Wyoming, first female governor
[g]United States;Jan. 5, 1925: First Female Governor in the United States[06340]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 5, 1925: First Female Governor in the United States[06340]
[c]Women’s issues;Jan. 5, 1925: First Female Governor in the United States[06340]
Ross, Nellie Tayloe
Ross, William Bradford
Sullivan, Eugene J.

Nellie Tayloe Ross.

(Library of Congress)

Within days of her husband’s funeral, Nellie Ross was beseeched by state Democratic leaders to consider fulfilling the remainder of her husband’s term. The state’s attorney general had ruled that a new governor would need to be elected at the next scheduled general election, which was less than five weeks away. Although she expressed doubts about her ability to carry out the duties of a governor, Ross made no attempt to stop her nomination by the state Democratic convention on October 14.

Nellie Davis Tayloe was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, to parents of considerable wealth and station. She was educated as a kindergarten teacher and taught for a brief time in Omaha, Nebraska, before meeting William Bradford Ross while on a visit to her father’s family in Tennessee. A romance quickly developed, and they were married in Omaha in 1902. The new Mrs. Ross then surrendered her teaching position and moved to Wyoming with her politically ambitious husband. As William Ross’s career moved forward, Nellie Ross devoted herself to rearing three children (a fourth child died at the age of ten months). She once said that until her husband died the thought of a vocation outside the home never entered her mind.

What Nellie Ross knew about politics came through years of observing her husband’s political career. She admitted that she was bereft of political experience, but she believed that she had “unconsciously absorbed” knowledge of what it meant to be chief executive of a state government. Nevertheless, Ross was reluctant to test her understanding of politics in the crucible of an election campaign. She chose instead to remain at home during the days prior to the November 4 election. She was confident that the voters of Wyoming would pay tribute to her husband’s memory by electing her. It was left to other Democratic Party leaders to explain that Ross intended to follow the policies initiated by her husband.

The Republican nominee, Eugene J. Sullivan, was a New Hampshire-born attorney. He found it very difficult to campaign against a candidate who was in mourning and who refused to leave her house. Sullivan had close ties with major oil companies, and Democrats repeatedly suggested that whereas Ross would continue her husband’s practice of fighting for the “little fellow,” Sullivan would support big business interests.

During the three-week campaign, Democrats worked to capitalize on the fact that Wyoming could make history by being the first state to have a female governor. This, they argued, would be in keeping with Wyoming’s reputation for granting political rights to women. In 1869, the first legislature of the Wyoming Territory had given women the right to vote and to hold office. (Two male suffragists had convinced the tiny legislature that providing rights for women would attract more females to the West.) Ross’s supporters also used the slogan “Beat Texas to It,” a reference to the campaign of Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, Ferguson, Miriam A. who was expected to win the election for governor in Texas. Ferguson was elected in Texas (she was also campaigning for an office left vacant by her husband’s death), but the inauguration there was scheduled for three weeks later than Wyoming’s.

In the last days of the campaign, it was apparent that Ross held the advantage. The Republicans were hurt by Sullivan’s association with big business and by the continuing sympathy for Ross generated by her husband’s death. Many Republicans joined with Democrats in placing newspaper advertisements supporting Ross. On the eve of the election, an editorial in the Wyoming Labor Journal noted that tea parties in the state capitol certainly would be preferable to “Teapot Dome” parties.

The results of the election showed Nellie Tayloe Ross winning handily. She reacted to her victory by pointing out that a peculiarly tragic turn of events had made her governor. Ross reiterated that she would never have sought the governor’s office of her own volition. She had taken on the challenge because so many friends had told her that only she could guarantee the attainment of her husband’s legislative programs.

Nellie Tayloe Ross served out the remaining two years of William Ross’s term and then was defeated in an attempt to gain reelection. Her two years as governor were undistinguished. She found it nearly impossible to work with the Republican-dominated legislature. During the course of the 1926 campaign, in which Ross did take to the stump, she discovered that the sympathy votes she had had in 1924 were no longer there. Women’s rights advocates complained that while she was governor Ross had shown no interest in advancing their cause, a charge that Ross did not deny. Republicans who had supported her during her first campaign now gave their votes to their own party’s candidate.

Her defeat in 1926 did not end Ross’s involvement in politics. The two years in the state capitol had convinced her to become an activist on behalf of the Democratic Party. In 1928, she was vice chair of the Democratic National Convention and seconded the nomination of Alfred Smith for president. In that same year, she moved to Washington, D.C., and directed the national efforts of Democratic women. She was especially prominent in the campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. As a reward for her efforts, Roosevelt appointed her the first female director of the U.S. Mint, a post she held until 1953. When her duties permitted, Ross wrote political articles for a variety of women’s magazines and supervised a large tobacco farm she had purchased in Maryland. Although she had much success as a businesswoman and as a government officeholder, Ross never spoke out forcefully for more opportunities for women.


The election of Ross, along with that of Ferguson in Texas, created a stir in the nation’s press. Most of the commentary was far from positive. It was widely reported that Ross had achieved election on the basis of sentiment and that she had no political expertise in her own right. There were doubts that Ross or Ferguson would ever carry out anything more constructive than baking a pie or making a bed. A writer for the Consolidated Press Association hoped that Ross would “keep house” for the state by following the “homely virtues of rigid economy, neatness, orderliness, and efficiency.” On the other hand, some observers noted that both women had been freely elected and that this had to mean an improved image for women in politics.

Wyoming citizens seemed proud of the fact that the first female governor had been inaugurated in their state; they especially enjoyed the attention Wyoming received in the eastern press. It seemed to confirm that Wyoming really was the “Equality State,” an appellation given to Wyoming as a result of the women’s suffrage bill passed by the territory’s first legislature in 1869. That bill, in fact, gained more favorable interest from feminists across the country than did Ross’s election.

The long-range impact of Ross’s election on the course of the women’s rights movement appears to have been negligible. As T. A. Larson notes in his bicentennial history of Wyoming, the state consistently lagged behind even neighboring states in granting opportunities to women. In the 1970’s, the federal government pressured Wyoming to move more swiftly to diminish sexual discrimination. Ross’s election to the governor’s office did not change basic attitudes toward women in male-dominated Wyoming.

On a national level, there is no way to gauge the effect of Ross’s election. Surely her victory showed that in very special circumstances women could be elected to high office. This may well have encouraged other women to pursue political ambitions. The fact remained, however, that even at the end of the twentieth century it was still considered unusual for a woman to be voted into high political office in the United States. Women;politicians
Wyoming, first female governor

Further Reading

  • Brown, Dorothy M. Setting a Course: American Women in the 1920s. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Comprehensive study by a professor of history at Georgetown University discusses the wide variety of experience among American women in the 1920’s, including in the areas of church, politics, education, and work. Features endnotes and index.
  • Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996. Breakthrough book in the study of women’s history in the United States recounts the efforts of women to extend their rights and opportunities and especially to gain the franchise. Includes discussion of the considerable achievement of black women under adverse circumstances and gives some attention to Wyoming’s role in opening the door to female voters while placing this event in perspective. Includes bibliographical summary, notes, and index.
  • Gillmore, Inez Haynes. Angels and Amazons: A Hundred Years of American Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1934. A pioneering study, written in a lively style, of the progress of women in the United States from 1833 to 1933. Discusses the struggle for opportunities for women in education, politics, and the workplace, with especially strong coverage of the many organizations formed to advance the cause of women. Perhaps places more importance on Wyoming’s extension of suffrage to females in 1869 than is justified. Includes appendix and index.
  • Gould, Lewis J. Wyoming: A Political History, 1868-1896. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968. Well-researched and well-written account of early politics in Wyoming. Discusses the territorial legislature that startled the country by allowing women to vote and to hold office.
  • Larson, T. A. Wyoming: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. One of the best general histories of Wyoming’s politics and culture available. Puts into perspective Wyoming’s claim to be the “Equality State.” Includes brief but useful discussion of Ross’s election.
  • Marshall, Brenda DeVore, and Molly A. Mayhead, eds. Navigating Boundaries: The Rhetoric of Women Governors. New York: Praeger, 2000. Collection of essays examines how women governors in the United States have used discourse to navigate political boundaries. Chapter 3 is devoted to discussion of Ross.
  • Scheer, Teva J. Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. Biography places Ross’s political life in the context of her times. Includes bibliography and index.

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