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America’s very first woman governor was Nellie Tayloe Ross

Nellie Tayloe Ross

Talk to people about the State of Wyoming and the likelihood is most will think of Yellowstone National Park and possibly rodeos, but have little knowledge of anything else. Hopefully those who support women’s rights have a better working knowledge of the state, due to the fact Wyoming is home to America’s first woman governor.

Nellie Tayloe Ross was born on November 29, 1876. The sixth child and first daughter of James Wynn Tayloe and Elizabeth Blair Green, Nellie’s life began in Andrew County, Missouri. Spending her first years on her family’s plantation along the Missouri River, Nellie was seven when the home was destroyed by fire. Shortly thereafter, the Tayloes moved to Kansas, settling in Miltonvale.

Following her graduation from Miltonville High School in 1892, Nellie’s family moved to Omaha, Nebraska. Here she taught piano while attending teacher training college. After she completed her training, Nellie taught kindergarten for four years. She also traveled to Europe, accompanied by two of her brothers, in 1896.

During a family trip to Dover, Tennessee in 1900, Nellie met William Bradford Ross. A budding lawyer, Ross harbored a love for the American West and moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming to begin a new practice. Nellie joined him there after the couple was married on September 11, 1902. A leader in Wyoming’s Democratic Party, William made several attempts to run for office; but lost each one to his Republican opponent.

In time, William was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when he won the gubernatorial election of 1922 by appealing to Wyoming’s progressive voters and many Republicans who were at odds over the Teapot Dome scandal during President Warren G. Harding's administration. Following an appendectomy, William died from surgical complications on October 2, 1924.

Wyoming law required William’s successor be elected immediately, due to the fact his death occurred so close to November’s general election. On the afternoon of William’s funeral, members of the Democratic Party approached Nellie with the request she run to fill the vacancy. She agreed to do so for two reasons: 1) she needed a job to support her family; and 2) she wanted to see the programs her husband began continue. Though she refused to campaign for herself, Nellie easily won the election on November 4, 1924 because friends posted political advertisements and Nellie wrote two open letters stating her intentions. She took office on January 5, 1925 as the first female governor in the history of the United States.

As governor, Nellie picked up where William had left off; seeking tax cuts, banking reform, and laws to protect children, working women and miners; in addition to government assistance for poor farmers. She also pressed forward with her husband’s desire to strengthen prohibition laws. Though from the outset, many of her programs seemed doomed to failure due to the Republican-led legislature, a majority of them were successfully approved in some form.

During her tenure in office, a number of journalists and politicians called upon Governor Ross, seeking to learn how a woman in the "backwaters" of Wyoming could possibly be an effective chief executive. These skeptics were amazed by her gracious, though business-like style, which garnered respect from even the most doubtful observers. Ross focused her attention more on being a good governor for the citizens of Wyoming than honing her campaigning skills.

Nellie ran for re-election in 1926, but suffered a narrow defeat. She felt her loss was due in part to the fact she had refused to campaign for herself, and also her strong support of prohibition. Her political life, however, did not end. Following her defeat for re-election, Nellie served several terms in the Wyoming state legislature and remained an active member of the Democratic Party.

In 1928, she went on the campaign trail for Al Smith during the presidential election. At that year’s Democratic National Convention, 10 states awarded Nellie 31 votes on the first ballot for vice president. After the convention, she became the vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and director of the DNC’s Women’s Division.

Following his election in 1932, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Nellie to be the first female director of the US Mint on May 3, 1933. One of several women appointed to cabinet posts by FDR, Nellie moved to Washington, D.C. and served five terms (1933 – 1953), then retired. While serving as Director, Nellie demonstrated a management prowess in this demanding post. She oversaw the automation of the Mint's production process, while dramatically reducing operational expenses.

Nellie Ross spent her retirement years traveling and writing articles for a number of women’s magazines. She was 96 when she returned to Wyoming in 1972 for the last time prior to her death. She died on December 19, 1977 in Washington, D.C. at the age of 101; the oldest ex-governor in the United States at that time. Nellie was buried in her family’s plot in Cheyenne’s Lakeview Cemetery. To date, she holds the title as Wyoming’s only female governor.

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