American politician Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977) gained fame in the 1920s when she was elected governor of Wyoming, becoming the first woman in the country to hold such a post. After leaving that office, she had an active career in national Democratic politics and was named director of the U.S. Mint by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, a position she held for nearly 20 years.
Although she had never planned a career in politics, Nellie Tayloe Ross became one of the best-known politicians of the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. After the death of her husband, William Bradford Ross, the governor of Wyoming, in 1924, Ross was elected to replace him, becoming the first woman to serve as a governor in the United States upon her inauguration on January 5, 1925. As a Democrat in a primarily Republican state, Ross did not accomplish much as governor, but she became active in the national Democratic Party after her term was completed. She was a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt during his presidential campaign of 1932; when he was elected to office, he named Ross to the federal post of director of the United States Mint, making her the first woman to hold that post.
Ross was born Nellie Davis Tayloe on November 29, 1876, in St. Joseph, Missouri. The daughter of James Wynn Tayloe and Elizabeth Blair Green Tayloe, she had distinguished ancestors on both sides of her family. Her father came from an influential Southern family that had included the builder of the famed Octagon House in Washington, D.C., the home of President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison after the burning of the White House in the War of 1812. Her mother's family boasted a distant relationship to President George Washington. Despite such a background, Ross's early years were not remarkable. She attended both private and public schools and in addition received some private instruction. After her family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, she entered a teacher training program for two years and then spent a short time teaching kindergarten.
Ross met the young lawyer William Bradford Ross while visiting relatives in Tennessee. The two fell in love, and after William Ross moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to begin a private law practice, they were married in 1902. A year later, the twin boys George Tayloe and James Ambrose were born to the couple. A third son, Alfred Duff, was born in 1905 but died before he was a year old. In 1912, their fourth son, William Bradford, was born. Ross was a devoted wife and mother who was content to spend her time at home and in assisting in educational self-improvement programs with the Cheyenne Woman's Club.
Husband Elected Governor
Her husband, however, was more active in the public sphere and his increasing interest in politics led him to run for various posts as a Democrat. Because the state was primarily Republican, however, he did not have much success. But his fortunes changed in 1922 when a group of Progressive Republicans joined the Democrats in supporting his nomination for governor and he was elected. Ross was not excited about the changes this created in her life, but she supported her husband's work and acted as a confidant who listened to his problems and ideas during his tenure as governor. The transition to her role as governor's wife may have been difficult, but the changes that were to occur over the next few years would prove to be even more of a challenge to Ross.
In September of 1924, William Ross underwent an appendectomy and developed complications from the surgery. He died on October 2, 1924. Because his death occurred only a few weeks before the November 4 general elections for the state, an election to name a successor to complete the last two years of the governor's term was required by Wyoming law. The Democrats asked Ross to run as their candidate; while she did not respond to their inquiry, it was assumed that by not answering, she was not declining their offer. She was named the Democratic nominee on October 14. The Republicans chose the attorney Eugene J. Sullivan as their candidate.
Elected First Woman Governor
Ross did not have any previous political experience, but she felt that she was the person who best understood what her husband had intended to do as governor and she wanted to carry on his work. She did not publicly campaign for office, but limited her efforts to two open letters to voters that outlined her plans as governor. She made it clear that a vote for her would be a vote for the programs begun by her husband. Wyoming residents sympathized with her role as a widow, perhaps her greatest advantage in the election. The idea that Wyoming could elect the nation's first woman governor also was attractive to the state's citizens. Wyoming had been the first state to legalize the vote for women, and the additional achievement of the first woman governor would be a source of pride for residents. The pressure to elect Ross was increased by the likely election of a female governor in Texas that year, Miriam A. Ferguson, wife of former governor James A. Ferguson, who had been impeached. The negative publicity attending Ross's competitor, Sullivan, due to his connections with the oil industry recently embarrassed by the Teapot Dome scandal, also helped Ross's chances in the election.
Although many other Democrats were defeated in Wyoming's 1924 elections, Ross emerged victorious. On January 5, 1925, she was inaugurated as governor, earning the distinction of being the nation's first woman in that office (Miriam Ferguson had also won her election, but was not sworn into office until January 25). Still wearing mourning clothes in memory of her husband, Ross addressed the crowd attending the ceremony with the message that the administration and policies of her husband would continue during her time in office. She began her term in a relatively strong position, with the advantages of having an administration in place and having the sympathy and support of many voters.
Received Nationwide Attention
Ross was aware that as the first woman governor she carried a special responsibility. She was careful not to do anything that would make people question whether women were able to hold such a post. Her role also brought her a great deal of notoriety; her office and the porch of her home were continually filled with people hoping to get a glimpse of the female governor. She even received such attention when she traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the inauguration day parade for president Calvin Coolidge— her presence drew the loudest applause from parade spectators that day. But despite numerous invitations to give lectures and appear across the country, she did not accept any of these offers, preferring to stay in Wyoming and focus on her political duties.
Her tenure as governor was not particularly fruitful, however. The Republican-dominated state house was reluctant to support her proposals, although she was able to reach some compromises on banking reform and other issues. Some of the other plans she initiated were assistance programs for the agricultural industry, legislation to protect women and children in the workplace, and cuts in state taxes and spending. One controversial move that she made was vetoing a bill calling for a special election to fill an unexpected vacancy in the U.S. Senate seats from Wyoming. Traditionally, the governor had appointed a replacement in these cases, but Republicans saw that an elderly Republican senator was not likely to survive his latest term and they wanted to avoid a Democratic appointee in the post. Ross later claimed that it was this issue that caused her to lose her bid for reelection in 1926.
Supported Democratic Presidential Candidates
Ross was renominated by Democrats in the gubernatorial election of 1926, but she no longer had the sympathy of voters that had overridden their party preferences in 1924. The Republican candidate, Frank C. Emerson, carried the election and Ross ended her only term in elected office. She began to give the lectures she had previously declined and also wrote a number of articles for magazines. She did not leave politics altogether, though. As a committee member from Wyoming for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), she joined in national political issues, later becoming a vice chair of the DNC. She worked with future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1928 presidential campaign of Alfred E. Smith, heading the Democratic Party's Women's Division's efforts in gaining support for the candidate and giving speeches around the country; she also was given the honor of seconding Smith's nomination at the Democratic convention that year. Smith was not elected, but Ross continued with her work for the Democratic Party in the 1932 elections, serving with the party's Women's Speaker's Bureau in campaigning for nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After Roosevelt became president, he made it clear that he planned to name a number of women to high government posts. One of the women he selected for his administration was Ross, who received the assignment of directing the United States Mint. Ross was extremely successful in her new position. She cut costs and increased efficiency at the Mint by introducing automated processes, which also allowed her to reduce the Mint's staff by 75 percent. Her stellar performance in this position allowed her to remain in the post throughout all of Roosevelt's years in office and through the administration of president Harry S. Truman. It was not until the election of Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower that Ross was finally replaced in 1952 after nearly 20 years at the Mint. Ross continued to live in the nation's capital for the rest of her life. She died on December 19, 1977, at the age of 101. While her most effective years in politics and government took place after her work in Wyoming, Ross's place in United States history still greatly rests on her role as the first woman in the country to serve as a governor.
Further Reading on Nellie Tayloe Ross
"First U.S. Woman Governor Celebrates Her Centennial during the Bicentennial," Aging, February/March, 1977, pp. 13-14.
Tayloe, Nellie Ross, "The Governor Lady" (3-part series of articles), Good Housekeeping, August, 1927, pp. 30-31, 118-24; September, 1927, pp. 36-37, 206-18; November, 1927, pp. 72-73, 180-97.