Nellie Tayloe Ross: The First Female Governor

By Joanna Wendel

January 2021 will be remembered as the inauguration of Kamala Harris, the United States’ first female vice president. But this month also marks the anniversary of another milestone inauguration that has been largely forgotten. On January 5, 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876–1977) took office as governor of Wyoming, making her the first woman elected as governor in the United States. Her unusual path into politics deserves a closer look.

Born in Missouri, Nellie moved to Omaha with her family in 1892, where she gave piano lessons and studied to be a kindergarten teacher. In 1902, she married lawyer William Ross. The Rosses made their home in Cheyenne, where William ran a law practice and tried to launch a political career, and Nellie gave birth to four children (three of whom survived to adulthood).

William ran successfully for local prosecutor in 1904, but failed to secure re-election in 1906. His campaigns for the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives also failed, and in 1918, he narrowly missed winning the Democratic nomination for governor.

Finally, in 1922, William’s fortunes reversed and he was elected governor by a narrow margin. However, his time in office was cut short: he fell ill with appendicitis, and died October 2, 1924, following complications from an appendectomy.

Nellie found herself in a difficult position. The head of the state’s Democratic Party asked if she would consider running for the suddenly vacant office. The special election would take place the following month, so she needed to decide quickly.

Although Nellie had enjoyed being first lady of Wyoming and discussing political issues with her husband, she had never before considered taking office herself. After days of agonizing, she decided to seize the moment and agreed to accept the nomination.

Nellie was elected by a wide margin on November 4, 1924. Still grieving her husband’s death, she put little energy into campaigning. It is likely that voters were swayed by their sympathy for her loss, and an assumption that she would carry on her husband’s policies.

Still, her election was highly significant. In 1869, Wyoming became the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote and to hold office. Susan Wissler of Dayton became Wyoming’s first female mayor (and one of the first female mayors in the United States) in 1912. But Nellie was the first woman in Wyoming elected to such a high-ranking office.

As expected, Nellie continued to support her late husband’s policies. Like William, she was a strong supporter of Prohibition, and continued William’s efforts to reduce government spending and provide loans to farmers. However, she also introduced her own proposals, which included stronger state regulation of banks, increased protections for coal miners and women in industrial jobs, and support for restrictions on child labor.

Meanwhile, Nellie’s landmark success drew increasing attention. She was invited to give speeches around the country, and attended the inauguration of president Calvin Coolidge.

In 1926, Nellie ran for re-election, but was defeated by a narrow margin. Yet her political career was far from over. Now a famous public figure, she traveled around the country giving speeches. She campaigned for Al Smith when he won the Democratic nomination for president in 1928. Although Smith lost to Herbert Hoover, Nellie was offered a new role as director of the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Committee in Washington, DC.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, Nellie was responsible for raising support among women voters. In 1933, Roosevelt named her director of the U.S. Mint, making her the first woman to hold this position. Nellie remained in this role for the next 20 years, appointed to three five-year terms by Roosevelt and a fourth term by his successor, President Harry Truman.

Nellie’s unexpected and surprisingly long-lasting career reminds us that the history of women in American politics stretches back further than we might assume. Almost 100 years ago, her election as governor of Wyoming heralded many further successes for female politicians.