First woman governor
The first woman governor of a state (Wyoming) in the United States, Ross later served as an officer in the Democratic Party and as a director of the U.S. Mint, one of the first women to head a federal agency.
Nellie Davis Tayloe was born on November 29, 1876, in St. Joseph, Missouri. Her father, James Wynn Tayloe, was from a prominent Southern family, one of whose members had built the Octagon House in Washington, D.C., where President James Madison and his wife Dolley lived after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Her mother, Elizabeth Blair Green Tayloe, was descended from a family that claimed a distant kinship with George Washington.
Nellie attended public and private schools and had private instruction as well. Her family eventually moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where she completed a two-year program as a kindergarten teacher and taught briefly before her marriage.
While visiting relatives in Tennessee, she met and fell in love with a young lawyer, William Bradford Ross. He moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, before marrying Nellie in 1902. The Rosses had four sons: the twins, George Tayloe and James Ambrose, born in 1903; Alfred Duff, born in 1905, who died at ten months of age; and William Bradford, born in 1912. Nellie devoted herself to her home and family during her marriage. She was active in the Cheyenne Woman's Club, which concentrated on intellectual self-improvement, and she often presented programs there.
William Ross practiced law and occasionally ran for political office. As a Democrat in a Republican state, however, he had little political success until, to his wife's dismay, he was elected governor of Wyoming in 1922 by a coalition of Democrats and Progressive Republicans. In September of 1924, he became ill and underwent an appendectomy. Complications from the surgery led to his death on October 2, 1924.
Because Governor Ross's death occurred close to the upcoming general election on November 4, 1924, Wyoming law required that his successor be elected then. Democratic Party leaders in Wyoming offered Nellie Tayloe Ross the nomination to fill the remainder of her husband's term. She did not reply and the party took her silence for acquiescence, nominating her on October 14. She had no political experience except for what she had acquired as her husband's confidant and in her tenure as the governor's wife. Although she lived in a state where women had voted since 1869, she had played no role in the woman suffrage campaign. She later indicated that she had accepted the nomination because she wished her husband's programs to continue and believed that she understood what he would have done better than anyone else; she also expressed the need for some purpose in her own life as she coped with the grief of widowhood. The Republicans nominated Eugene J. Sullivan of Casper, an attorney whose ties to the oil industry may have hurt his campaign since both Wyoming and the nation were immersed in the Teapot Dome scandal involving federal oil lands (including property located in Wyoming).
Nellie Ross did not campaign for office. Friends paid for a few political advertisements, and she wrote two open letters stating her intentions. She probably had two advantages in the election. The first was the sympathy of the voters for her widowhood. She indicated, and many people agreed, that a vote for her was a tribute to her deceased husband. The second advantage was the popular support among citizens for Wyoming to become the first state to elect a woman governor, since it had been first in 1869 to allow women to vote. This election would be the state's only chance to secure this distinction, since Miriam A. ("Ma") Ferguson, wife of impeached former governor James A. Ferguson, was likely to be elected governor of Texas in November. Although Ross won election easily, she did not help other Democrats in Wyoming in what was generally a catastrophic year for Democratic candidates nationwide in the wake of the crushing defeat of the party's presidential candidate by Republican Calvin Coolidge.
Nellie Tayloe Ross was inaugurated as the thirteenth governor of Wyoming on January 5, 1925, still wearing mourning clothes. In her brief address she stated that her administration would not be a new one, but rather a continuation of her husband's. She entered office with much popular sympathy and an administration in place. Since Ferguson was not sworn in as governor of Texas until January 25, Nellie Tayloe Ross was the nation's first woman governor.
When the Wyoming legislature convened in January of 1926, the new governor gave her first major speech, based on her husband's notes on his plans for that legislative session. She called for reductions in both state expenditures and taxes; for state assistance to the economically depressed agricultural industry; and for banking reform, noting the number of recently failed banks. She championed protective legislation for miners and for women and children, and she requested unsuccessfully that Wyoming ratify the federal amendment prohibiting child labor.
Ross recognized that the Republican-dominated legislature had little reason to cooperate with her. On some issues, such as banking reform, she was able to work out compromises with Republican leaders. In a few instances, she used the veto. She believed that her veto of a bill requiring a special election (rather than appointment by the governor) to fill a vacancy in Wyoming's delegation to the United States Senate caused her defeat in 1926. Wyoming's elderly Republican senator had been reelected only a short time earlier, and it was believed that he would not live to complete his term. Republicans did not want their Democratic governor to have the opportunity to appoint a Democrat to the position.
Ross was aware of the public's intense scrutiny of her actions and knew that if she made mistakes as governor, people would use them to claim that women should not hold high elective office. She found curiosity-seekers constantly in her office and on the porch of her home. Although she received invitations to speak all over the country, she declined them all. When she appeared in Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C., she got the largest ovation. Many Easterners still thought of Wyoming as an uncivilized place, and its cultured, gracious governor attracted attention simply because she was so different from their expectations.
As an administrator, Ross received mixed reviews. She removed from office some administrators appointed by her husband who were not meeting her expectations. She lamented the difficulties of enforcing Prohibition and advocated better law enforcement. She stood up to the federal government on issues of federal lands and water allocation.
Nellie Ross was nominated by the Democrats for reelection in 1926, but was defeated in a close election by the Republican candidate, Frank C. Emerson. While her veto of the senatorial special election law was one issue, Republicans vaguely alluded to the idea that a man would be a better governor than a woman. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to win women voters by suggesting that a rejection of Ross would be a rejection of woman suffrage. Ultimately she probably was defeated because she was a Democrat in a Republican state and the sympathy issue that had helped her in 1924 was no longer a factor. As it was, she did better than any other statewide Democratic candidate in Wyoming.
Ross never again sought elective public office. Instead, she lectured and wrote articles for magazines. She became involved in national politics, serving as a Wyoming committeewoman to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and then as vice chairman of the DNC, in charge of activities for women. In 1928, she seconded the presidential nomination of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. With Eleanor Roosevelt, she headed the campaign drive launched by the party's Women's Division to generate support for Smith. Already a popular speaker, Ross traveled around the country making speeches tirelessly and unsuccessfully for Smith's election. Four years later, Ross was active in the Women's Speakers' Bureau, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
With the election of Roosevelt as president in 1932, women became more visible in the federal government. Eleanor Roosevelt acted on her husband's behalf and publicly involved herself in policy issues to an unprecedented degree one that was not duplicated until Hillary Rodham Clinton became First Lady in 1993.
Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that he wanted to be the first president to appoint a woman to the cabinet. Ross was considered for either secretary of the interior or secretary of labor, but Roosevelt selected Frances Perkins as secretary of labor instead. He appointed a number of women to federal office; among them were Ruth Bryan Owens as minister to Denmark (1933-1936), Josephine Roche as assistant secretary of the Treasury (1934-1937), and Nellie Tayloe Ross as director of the United States Mint.
As director of the Mint, Ross dealt with the American gold and silver bullion reserve and the minting of coins for the United States and several foreign governments. Appointed in 1933, she served as the Mint's first woman director. At that time, huge quantities of gold and silver poured into the U.S. government's coffers. Ross discovered that most of the work was still being done by hand and directed that the process be automated. She emphasized efficiency and was able to reduce the costs of her operation significantly. In 1950, she informed an astonished Congressional Appropriations Committee that she had not needed all of her previous year's appropriation and wanted to return about $1 million of her $4.8 million appropriation. Her efficiency plans reduced the labor needs of the mint and resulted in the discharge of about 3,000 of the Mint's 4,000 employees. She continued as director of the Mint in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and was not replaced until the Republican administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to power in 1952. Ross continued to make her home in Washington, District of Columbia, until her death on December 19, 1977.
Nellie Tayloe Ross never intended to have a political career. She believed that women belonged at home and was content there until her husband's death thrust her into politics. Her election was probably attributable to public sympathy generated by her husband's death. She was the first of many women elected to fill out their husbands' unexpired terms in office.
As the nation's first woman governor, she did not have a tremendous impact. She was probably an average governor, although she was regarded more favorably than Texas governor Miriam A. Ferguson. She achieved few of her goals because of Republican control of the legislature. Her defeat for reelection was probably the result of being a Democrat in a predominantly Republican state.
After her defeat, she focused her attention on other political matters by becoming active in the Democratic National Committee and appearing as a popular and effective speaker. Her loyalty and support for Franklin D. Roosevelt led him to consider her for several offices before appointing her the first woman director of the United State Mint. She administered the Mint economically and efficiently for almost twenty years. Although she was not the most visible woman in the New Deal, Ross was one of the most durable and effective.