Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Governor Was a Lady

When I was a boy growing up in Cheyenne, Wyoming in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s Nellie Tayloe Ross was still alive.  I didn’t know it because she was living out her retirement in Washington, DC.  But I knew about her.  So did every kid who had to study Wyoming history in school.

Wyoming was proud to be the Equality State.  With men busy building things, the few white women in the Territory began to step forward and at first unofficially took on the duties of local administration.  In recognition women were awarded the franchise in 1869—the first in the country.  In 1870 women served on a Laramie jury while a female bailiff, Mary Atkinson served the court.  The same year at South Pass City Esther Hobart Morris became Justice of the Peace, the first woman officially elected to public office. 

The Territory stuck by its commitment even when women’s suffrage was discouraging support for statehood in Congress.  In 1890 it was admitted to the Union and two years later women were able to vote in local, state, and national elections.

Far away on a plantation near the perhaps aptly named Amazonia, Missouri, Nellie Tayloe was born on November 20, 1876.  Coming from a family with Southern roots and Confederate sympathies she was raised as a Democrat.

The family fell on hard times and decamped to Kansas after the family home burned just before the Sheriff could serve foreclosure papers. After graduating from high school in 1892 the family relocated again to Omaha, Nebraska.  That was the year that the Williams Jennings Bryan, the Boy Wonder of the Platte ran for president on both the Democratic and Populist tickets.  

Nellie contributed to the family income by teaching piano while she studied attended a local two year teacher’s college.  Upon graduation she taught kindergarten classes for four years. 

In 1900 while visiting relatives in Tennessee, Nellie met a rising young lawyer, William Bradford Ross.  They were married two years later and shortly relocated to Cheyenne where her husband put out his shingle.

He also went to work trying to breathe life into the moribund state Democratic Party.  Wyoming was then dominated, with ruthless efficiency, by the cattle barons of the Wyoming Cattlemen’s Association and the political machine put together by Francis E. Warren, first governor of the state and by then a United States Senator.  Democrats had represented the small ranchers and farmers who were ruthlessly and bloodily repressed in the range wars that had wracked the state for a decade.  They also drew support from hard rock and coal who were often engaged in their own bloody battles with mine operators.

Ross slowly built an organization and made repeated runs for local and state office.  In 1922 he ran for governor and was widely expected to lose badly again.  But he forged alliances with disappointed Republican progressives and former supporters of Theodore Roosevelt’s abortive Bull Moose party.  He finally persuaded enough of them to join forces with the Democrats when the Harding Administration was caught up in the great Tea Pot Dome Scandal involving improper granting of government oil leases to vast reserves in the state.  Local republicans indebted to oil man Harry Sinclair were a juicy target for populist rage.

Ross was a popular governor and considered a shoe in for re-election.  But after two and a half years in office, he died suddenly after a botch appendectomy.  The Lieutenant Governor temporarily took his place, but under Wyoming law the balance of his term had to be filled by a special election.  Democrats turned to his wife as the only candidate who could hold the seat.

Grief stricken but duty bound, Nellie agreed.  But she refused to campaign, leaving that in the hands of her “friends.”  It turned out she had plenty of those.  On January 5, 1925 she was sworn in as the first female governor in the United States.  She beat Miriam A. (Ma) Ferguson of Texas, the wife of an impeached but popular governor, who was also elected the previous November but who was not inaugurated until January 20.

Much to many people’s surprise, Gov. Ross proved not to be just a figure head.  She showed a talent for administration, and she pressed a progressive program including the passage of child labor laws and other reforms.  Despite being faced with a Republican legislature, she was able to move much of her program in some form.

Nominated for a full term in 1926, she was narrowly defeated Republican Frank Emerson.  Once again she had refused to campaign.  But it was probably her strong support for Prohibition enforcement which cooled the enthusiasm of wet Democrats that was probably to blame for her loss.

Ross had decided that she had a taste for both politics and public service.  She worked hand in glove with Eleanor Roosevelt in support of 1928 Presidential Candidate, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York despite their differences on Prohibition. At the Democratic Convention not only did she give a seconding speech for Smith, signaling the support of a Western, Protestant, reform minded woman for the New Yorker, but she so impressed delegates that she received 31 votes to be slated as Vice President.  Afterwards she became Vice-Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and head of the Women’s Division.  She was also elected to the Wyoming legislature.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, Ross became one of several women, most of them associates or protégées of his wife, who were given major posts in the administration.  She was named the Director of the Mint.

It was not an honorary appointment with the real work done by faceless bureaucrats.  Ross was a hands-on administrator.  She served five full terms under both Roosevelt and Harry Truman.  She was one of the longest serving of Roosevelt’s original appointees.  During her service she oversaw the modernization and automation of production at U.S. mints and the conversion from critical strategic metals like copper to zinc during World War II.  She retired when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1952.

Ross spent her retirement years in Washington, a respected Democratic elder.  She often contributed articles to women’s magazines and lectured.  She traveled widely.  In 1972 she visited Cheyenne for the last time where she was honored.  Five years later at the age of 101 she died in Washington.  He body was brought back to Wyoming to be interred next to her husband and predecessor as governor.

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