1924 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On November 4 voters in two states struck blows for equality by electing America’s first female governors, Miriam A. Ferguson in Texas and Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming. Both women were Democrats, and both of their husbands had been governors before them. Ferguson, known as “Ma” because of her initials (which fortuitously yielded a folksy nickname), was running to vindicate her husband, Jim, who had been impeached in 1917 for financial irregularities and prohibited from holding office again. Her campaign also benefited from a growing disenchantment with the Ku Klux Klan. A Klan-endorsed candidate had finished first in the July primary, with Ferguson second. For the run-off the anti-Klan forces—including men who had fought to impeach her husband—united behind her, and she easily won a race that one newspaper said gave voters a choice “between a bonnet and a hood.” She went on to defeat her Republican opponent in November with 59 percent of the vote—a comfortable margin, though much closer than usual in Democratic-dominated Texas.

Before the runoff Ferguson tried to reassure the voters that she would not completely abandon the role traditionally assigned to her sex. She took a day off from campaigning to preserve a bushel of peaches, and shots of her in a sunbonnet feeding chickens and standing next to a mule were widely reprinted —to the chagrin of Ferguson, whose household was in fact amply provided with servants. An Eastern newspaper implausibly reported that Ferguson’s “first happiness lies in chasing dust from behind the corners of pictures.” After her election, as a married woman, she had to secure a court’s permission to legally execute documents.

In office Ferguson relied so heavily on her husband that Texans joked, with some justification, that “Jim’s the covernor and Miriam signs the papers.” At public appearances she would make a few perfunctory remarks, say, “Jim can tell you about things better than I can,” and turn over the platform to her husband. When asked what it was like to have a woman governor, Texans would reply, “I don’t know. We haven’t got one.” Dogged by accusations of corruption, Ma Ferguson was defeated for re-election in 1926 by Dan Moody, the attorney general who had exposed her administration’s misfeasances. She ran again in 1930 and lost, won a second term in 1932, was not a candidate in 1934, and lost badly in her final campaign in 1940.

In Wyoming, Ross took a less contentious path to the governor’s office. Her husband, who had been elected in 1922 to a four-year term, died on October 2. Twelve days later the Democratic party nominated her to take his place. The bereaved widow did no campaigning and rode a wave of public sympathy to win 55 percent of the vote in a heavily Republican state.

Seeking a full term in 1926, she ran a more active campaign, crisscrossing the mountainous state by automobile and often making six or seven appearances in a day. Nevertheless, Ross lost her re-election bid, 51 to 49 percent. She remained active in national Democratic politics, oversaw the United States Mint for twenty years under Roosevelt and Truman, and died in 1977 at the age of 101.

Optimists suggested that the elections of Ross and Ferguson, coming on the heels of nationwide women’s suffrage, signaled the start of a new era in which female governors would become common. Some even talked of a woman President in, say, fifty years or so. In fact, after Ferguson, no female governor was elected until 1966, when Lurleen Wallace of Alabama successfully ran as a proxy for her husband, George, who was ineligible to succeed himself. Not until Ella Grasso of Connecticut in 1974 would a woman be elected governor whose husband had not already filled that office.