First Two Women Governors: Nellie Tayloe Ross & Miriam “Ma” Ferguson

The 19th Amendment, granting all American women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in 1919 but did not become law until it was ratified on 26 August 1920. On 4 November 1924, two women made history when Miriam A. Ferguson (of Texas) and Nellie Tayloe Ross (of Wyoming) became the first two women governors elected in the United States.

Photo: Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson
Photo: Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson (1875-1961). Credit: Bain News Service; U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The two women shared something in common: their husbands had preceded them in office. James Ferguson was Texas governor from 1915 to 1917, being removed from office during his second term because he was impeached for vetoing appropriations for the University of Texas. William B. Ross was elected governor of Wyoming in 1922, but died in office a year and a half later following an appendectomy.

Photo: Nellie Tayloe Ross
Photo: Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

First Woman Governor: Nellie Tayloe Ross

Although elected on the same day, Nellie Tayloe Ross holds the distinction of being the first female governor, since she was sworn in on 5 January 1925 – 15 days before Ferguson. This is perhaps an appropriate political honor for the state, since Wyoming first granted women suffrage in 1869 when it was Wyoming Territory, and upon its admission into the Union in 1890 and was the first state to grant women the right to vote.

Miriam Ma Ferguson

Ma Ferguson became the first female governor of Texas in 1924. She ran for governor after her husband was impeached and removed from office. Ma leveraged what remained of her husband’s supports and a common slogan of hers was, “Me for Ma, and I Ain’t Got a Durned Thing Against Pa.” She was the first to be elected in a general election, running against Republican candidate George C. Butte. Nellie Tayloe Ross had been sworn in just two weeks before after the death of her husband.

The following three newspaper articles describe the historic first these two women achieved. The first article, written on Election Day (November 4), speculates that “Cowpunchers and sheepherders from the grassy expanses” of Wyoming may well be ready to elect the first woman governor. The second article, Wyoming and Texas Elect Women as Chief Executives, is a news report of Ferguson and Ross’s twin victories. The third article is an editorial, placing the two women’s election victories in the context of the electoral climate in 1924 and the presidential campaign of Calvin Coolidge.

An article about the election of Nellie Tayloe Ross, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 5 November 1924
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 5 November 1924, section 2, page 25

Here is a transcription of this article:

Woman Holds Stage in Wyoming Election – By The United Press.

CHEYENNE, Wyo., Nov. 4. – The doings of the three major candidates for President held second place in Wyoming.

Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross, widow of Wyoming’s dead Governor and nominee to succeed him, holds the center of the stage.

Cowpunchers and sheepherders from the grassy expanses of the state who heretofore have voted along party lines without much question have turned to the woman from the South who heads the State’s Democratic ticket, and have set themselves either for or against her.

Wyoming was the first state to accept woman suffrage. The people of the state are proud of that fact, and their pride may sweep Mrs. Ross into office.

“Election day will determine whether Wyoming was sincere when she blazed the way for all other States in granting equal suffrage. I believe Mrs. Ross will gain far more votes than she will lose through the mere fact that she is a woman,” John B. Kendrick, Senator from Wyoming, said.

“If she is elected,” Kendrick pointed out, “she will be the first woman Governor in the United States. She would take office immediately after election, while Ma Ferguson in Texas would not assume office until later.”

Republican political leaders, however, view their election fight against her with comparative confidence. They point out that the State normally has a Republican majority of more than 5,000. Furthermore, Eugene Sullivan, the Republican nominee, has been conceded even by men of the Democratic Party to be an exceptionally strong candidate.

Mrs. Ross was born in Tennessee and came to Wyoming from St. Joseph, Mo., where she married the late Gov. Ross.

An article about the elections of Miriam A. Ferguson and Nellie Tayloe Ross, Oregonian newspaper article 6 November 1924
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 6 November 1924, page 2

Here is a transcription of the second article,

Wyoming and Texas Elect Women as Chief Executives

For the first time two women, Mrs. Miriam A. Ferguson of Texas and Mrs. Nellie Ross of Wyoming, have been elected governors of their respective states. Both are Democrats, and the husbands of both had been governors of their respective states.

Mrs. Ferguson generally was called “Ma,” by reason of her initials. Her opponent was Dr. George C. Butte, Republican. Mrs. Ferguson went through three bitter campaigns, not from a desire to hold office, but in an effort to vindicate the Ferguson family name. Her husband, James E. Ferguson, was impeached when governor and was unable to get his own name on the ballots as a candidate. She had to survive two primaries and the final election to win. Their opponents charged that if Mrs. Ferguson were elected her husband actually would be governor. The charge was vigorously denied by both.

During most of the campaigns Mrs. Ferguson remained in Temple caring for her home and doing her accustomed household work. She is the mother of two daughters, one of whom is married and lives in Austin. She has one grandson. Her neighbors wildly acclaimed her election last night and escorted her from a newspaper office to her home.

Mrs. Ross was nominated by the Democrats of Wyoming following the death of her husband, William B. Ross, and she will fill out his unexpired term as chief executive of the state. Mrs. Ross’ home is at Cheyenne. She has two grown sons, who, she says, will help her if she should need it in her work as governor.

An article about the elections of Miriam A. Ferguson and Nellie Tayloe Ross, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 9 November 1924
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 9 November 1924, page 6

Here is a transcription of this article:

Reaching Out

Election of Two Women Governors Is New Departure in American Politics

Out of the battle of the ballots last Tuesday emerged two women governors – Mrs. Miriam A. Ferguson, of Texas, and Mrs. Nellie T. Ross of Wyoming. The fact has a special interest since it is the first time in the history of the country that women have been elected chief executives of states.

Whether the advance toward executive responsibility in politics is indicative of a larger participation in governmental administration is a debatable question, since the situations in Wyoming and Texas were exceptional. Both Mrs. Ferguson and Mrs. Ross took up the work formerly done by their husbands. Mrs. Ferguson sought to vindicate her husband whose record as governor brought about his impeachment a few years ago. Mrs. Ross will succeed to the office made vacant by the death of her husband.

The campaign recently ended brought to public attention several important and interesting features. For the first time in a presidential campaign, women were represented equally with men in political management. Four years ago, feminine influence in directing the national contest was not great since the amendment to the federal constitution was not in force until late in August, 1920, and the few weeks between then and the November election were too short for a rearrangement of campaign plans. Because of a lack of organization, the women’s vote, in those states where the right of franchise was new, was rather light. In Washington, where woman suffrage was not new, women shared the responsibility of citizenship equally with the men.

The results of the election showed that President Coolidge’s policies appealed strongly to feminine voters. The federal budget commended itself strongly to women accustomed to the exercise of economy in the home. The tariff, which protects American labor from the competition of poorly paid workmen in other countries, needed no special explanation to the women. Economy in governmental expenditures for the purpose of relieving the home of some of its burdens of taxation found as staunch advocates among the women as the men.

Women have been quick to applaud the purpose of President Coolidge to bring about a reduction in armaments and to settle disputes by peaceful negotiation and by law and justice. In fact the whole common sense program for foreign and domestic policies proposed by the President met with instantaneous approval by the women voters.

Since women governors of states are unusual, the public will take a lively interest in the achievements of Mrs. Ferguson and Mrs. Ross. In their platform declarations they made no extravagant promises. Mrs. Ferguson, ruler of the great Lone Star state, will give her main attention to education, from the rural school to the university. Mrs. Ross merely stated that she would endeavor to conduct the affairs of her office so efficiently that “no one ever again will assert that women are unfit for high executive offices.”

If those women governors measure up to the demands of their offices, no one can predict what the effect will be on the country. Perhaps other states in the Union may try similar experiments.

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