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Ella Grasso

the first woman to be elected Governor in her own right

Ella Grasso

Ella Rosa Giovanni Oliva Tambussi was born Windsor Locks, Connecticut, on May 10, 1919. She attended St. Mary’s School, won a scholarship to the Chaffee School (a girls' preparatory school in Windsor Locks), and then attended Mount Holyoke College, from which she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1940, majoring in economics and sociology; she received her master's from Mount Holyoke in 1942. She married Thomas Grasso in 1942; the couple ultimately had two children.

Grasso joined the League of Women Voters in 1942, and began working for the Connecticut Democratic Party as a speechwriter the following year. In 1952, she was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly, and served there until 1957; in 1955 she became the first woman elected Floor Leader. During her tenure in the General Assembly, she was a leader in the move to simplify state operations by eliminating county governments, via a new State Constitution, which took effect in 1960.

In 1958, Grasso was elected to the first of three terms as Connecticut Secretary of State. During her tenure in that office, she was known for encouraging individual citizens to air grievances or seek advice. She also served as a member of the Platform Drafting Committee for the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and as co-chair of the Resolutions Committees for the 1964 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions. At the latter convention she pushed for a platform plank against the Vietnam War, and ultimately walked out of the convention hall in Chicago, Illinois, to protest what she and others viewed as police brutality against antiwar demonstrators.

Grasso left the Secretary of State's office to run for the U. S. House of Representatives in 1970, when the incumbent, Thomas J. Meskill, ran for Governor. Despite a general defeat for the Democrats in Connecticut that year, she won; she was re-elected in 1972. While in Congress, she served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, voted for economic-stimulus bills, and helped draft the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.

In 1974, Grasso re-entered state politics and, after a hard-fought campaign, defeated Republican Congressman Robert Steele for Governor by a margin of more than 200,000 votes, making her the first woman to be elected Governor in her own right (not as the widow or wife of a previous Governor); she was re-elected by a landslide in 1978. As Governor, Grasso she created a stronger Department of Public Utilities Control, championed a ''sunshine'' law that opened many functions of government to public scrutiny, and reorganized the executive branch to make it more efficient. She also kept state spending low, in part by holding increases in welfare benefits well below the rate of inflation, limiting aid to the cities and, in 1975, by laying off 500 state workers just before Christmas. She also scrapped the Governor's limousine in favor of a standard cruiser of the state police, and later a high-mileage compact car. During the Blizzard of 1978, she endeared herself to her constituents by personally directing emergency operations and making frequent television appearances. She also closed all roads and businesses in the state by official proclamation to allow emergency workers to perform essential services without worrying about stranded motorists, automobile accidents, etc.

Diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 1980, Grasso announced on December 4 that she would resign on New Year's Eve; she was succeeded by Liutenant Governor William O'Neill on that date. She died in Hartford on February 5, 1981. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981, and in 1993 she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.


Connecticut State Library
Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame
New York Times

See Also

President Ronald Reagan

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The Robinson Library >> Connecticut

This page was last updated on January 13, 2019.