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Nellie Tayloe Ross

the first woman Governor in the United States; first female Director of the U.S. Mint

Nellie Tayloe Ross

Nellie Tayloe was born on a farm near St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 29, 1876, one of six surviving children born to James and Lizzie (Green) Tayloe. In 1884, the family moved to Miltonvale, Kansas, where her father opened a grocery store. Soon after she graduated from high school in 1892, the family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where she attended a teacher-training college and subsequently spent four years as a kindergarten teacher.

Tayloe met William Bradford Ross, a lawyer, while visiting relatives in Paris, Tennessee, in 1900. The two were married on September 11, 1902, and moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, soon after. Twin sons (George and Ambrose) were born the following year. A third son (Alfred) was born in 1905, but died 10 months later. Their fourth son (William Bradford II) was born in 1912.

While Nellie was running a house full of children, William was building his law practice and starting a political career. He first entered politics in 1904, when he ran for local prosecutor, and won; he was defeated for re-election in 1906. He lost a race for the state Senate in 1908, and another for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1910, after which he told Nellie he was finished with politics. In 1918, William reneged on his promise and ran for Governor of Wyoming, but lost a close race for the Democratic nomination. He gained the Democratic nomination in 1922, and then surprised almost everyone by winning the governorship of a state that was traditionally Republican. Despite being a Democrat in a Republican state, William Ross proved to be a popular and effective Governor. His Progressive agenda -- including strong enforcement of Prohibition, state spending cuts, and state loans for farmers and ranchers -- were earning him a good chance of re-election, but he was suddenly struck down by appendicitis and died in office on October 2, 1924.

William Ross was buried the morning of October 4, and the state Democratic Committee approached Nellie Ross about running for her late husband's office that afternoon. Initially reluctant, she finally agreed on October 14, after the Democrats had already nominated her. Although she did not campaign personally, she won the special election by a margin of about 8,000 votes (of about 79,000 total votes cast), a larger margin than her husband had won by, and was sworn in as the first woman Governor of a U.S. state on January 5, 1925.

The Wyoming State Legislature arrived in Cheyenne for its once-every-two-years session just a few days after Ross took office, and she immediately "charged" it with continuing the reforms begun by her late husband. She also presented an agenda of her own that included requiring cities, counties, and school districts to have budgets; stronger state laws regulating banks; exploration of better ways to sell Wyoming's heavy crude oil; earmarking some state mineral royalties for school districts; obtaining more funds for the university; improving safety for coal miners; protecting women in industrial jobs; and supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would cut back on child labor. That agenda proved way too ambitious for the legislature's short session, but it did pass legislation related to five of her proposals before adjourning on February 22. In the summer of 1925, Ross fired two men from state government who had been appointed by her husband. She charged that Frank Smith, game commissioner, with drunkenness, and doing a poor job of handling the fishing-license program, and that M.S. Wachtel, the state's law enforcement commissioner, had failed to enforce Prohibition, had taken protection money from bootleggers and had been drunk on the job.

A reluctant candidate for Governor in 1924, Ross came to like political office and was an enthusiastic, and active, candidate for re-election in 1926. Although her Republican opponent, Frank Emerson, focused on her gender, Ross based her campaign strictly on the achievements of her administration. Gender did end up being an issue for some voters, however, and Ross lost the election, but only by 1,365 votes out of the about 70,000 cast.

After leaving office in 1927, Ross spent about a year giving speeches throughout the West and Midwest. In 1928, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith won the Democratic nomination for president. Ross, now one of the most famous Democrats and one of the most famous women in the country, campaigned extensively for him, although she disagreed with him on prohibition. When Smith lost to Herbert Hoover, Ross was offered the job of director of the Women's Division of the National Democratic Committee, in which capacity she directed the campaign for the women's vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt took office as President in 1933, he named Ross director of the Bureau of the Mint, making her the first woman to hold that position. She was subsequently re-appointed four times, and held that job until retiring in 1953, during which time she oversaw the automation of the Mint's production process and dramatically reduced the expenses of its operation.

Nellie Tayloe Ross spent the rest of her life in Washington, D.C., and died there on December 19, 1977.


Women of the West Museum
Wyoming State Historical Society

See Also

Alfred E. Smith
Herbert Hoover
Franklin D. Roosevelt

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The Robinson Library >> Wyoming

This page was last updated on December 29, 2018.