Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first woman in the United States to serve as a state governor and also the first woman appointed as director of the US Mint. She was born on November 29, 1876, near St. Joseph, Missouri, to James Wynne and Elizabeth Blair Green Tayloe. While she was still a young girl, the family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where she received her education in public and private schools. After studying for two years to become a kindergarten teacher, she taught in Omaha for a brief time. In 1902 she married William Bradford Ross, a lawyer whom she had met while visiting relatives in Tennessee, and moved with him to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he had settled in 1901. The couple had four sons, three of whom lived to adulthood.
While her husband became involved in politics in Wyoming, Nellie Ross was happy, as she later related, being a wife and mother. (Long after she herself became politically active, she always insisted that a woman’s fulfillment came primarily from her domestic role.) William Ross’s career led him to the governorship of Wyoming in January 1923. However, on October 2, 1924, he died from complications following an appendectomy. Since Wyoming’s constitution did not provide for a lieutenant governor, Wyoming’s secretary of state, Franklin Lucas, became acting governor until an election for a new governor could be held. Both the Republicans and the Democrats quickly held conventions to nominate their candidates for the November election. The Democrats unanimously chose the governor’s widow to run against a Republican candidate, Eugene J. Sullivan, who had ties to the oil industry. Although Nellie Ross had not involved herself directly in politics, she had always been her husband’s confidante, and she was convinced that she could carry out his programs. Her victory by more than eight thousand votes was due in large part to voters’ sympathy for the widow and in part to their distrust of the oil interests since the recent Teapot Dome scandal. Then, too, some voters felt that the first state to give women the vote should be the first to have a woman as governor. On the same election day in November 1924, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson won Texas’s gubernatorial race. However, the inauguration for Ross was on January 5, 1925, while Ferguson’s came on January 20, thus giving Ross the distinction as first woman governor.
During her administration Ross sought stiffer regulations for mine safety, tax relief for the poor, more state loans for farmers, revision of state banking laws, fewer working hours for women, and ratification of the federal amendment to abolish child labor. Some of these measures passed in the Republican-controlled legislature, though not primarily because of her efforts. Historians have judged Ross as a capable and efficient administrator during her two years as governor. In 1926 she ran for reelection, but lost to Republican Frank C. Emerson by 1,365 votes.
Ross, an effective speaker, then became involved in the Democratic Party’s national organization. She seconded the nomination of presidential candidate Al Smith at the Houston convention in 1928, and, while helping to organize the women’s division of the party, she served as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1929 to 1933. Because of her work for the party, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her director of the US Mint in 1933, a position she held until 1953. During her tenure, the operation of the mint increased dramatically as the demand for more coins began with the recovery from the Great Depression and accelerated even more with the coming of World War II. The war years brought Ross the problem of reducing the amount of copper, zinc, and nickel in newly minted coins. She also oversaw the doubling of the Denver mint’s capacity, and she supervised the construction of a new mint in San Francisco, a new gold depository at Fort Knox, and a silver depository at West Point. Her name is inscribed on the cornerstone of the latter three structures. As the first female director of the mint, she is therefore the first woman to have a mint medal with her likeness on it. Ross conducted her office as director so efficiently that in 1950 she returned about 20 percent of her department’s appropriation. Ross, whose tenure ended with the coming of the Eisenhower administration, died on December 19, 1977, at 101 years of age.
This article was first published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), and appears here by permission of the author and original publisher.
Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978. Vol. 4. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Books, 1978.
Larson, T. A. History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Priddy, Bob. “The First Woman Governor Hailed from Missouri.” Missouri Life 12 (January-February 1985): 15-18.
Ross, Nellie Tayloe. “The Governor Lady.” Parts 1-3. Good Housekeeping 85 (August 1927): 30-31, 118-24; (September 1927): 36-37, 206-18; (October 1927): 72-73, 180-97.
Scheer, Teva J. Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Published September 20, 2021; Last updated September 22, 2021
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)