Ferguson, Miriam A. (1875–1961)

views updated

Ferguson, Miriam A. (1875–1961)

Texan who was the first woman in the U.S. to be elected to a full term as a state governor. Name variations: Ma Ferguson. Born Miriam Amanda Wallace in Bell County, Texas, on June 13, 1875; died on June 25, 1961, in Austin, Texas; daughter of Joseph Lapsley and Eliza (Garrison) Wallace (well-to-do rancherfarmers); attended Center Lake School, Bell County, Texas, around 1879; later studied with a tutor; enrolled in Salado College, a preparatory school, in 1888; entered Baylor Female College in Belton, Texas, in 1890; married James Edward Ferguson, on December 31, 1899; children: two daughters, Ouida Wallace Ferguson Nalle and Ruby Dorrace Ferguson.

Husband "Farmer Jim" Ferguson inaugurated governor of Texas (1915); husband reelected (1916); husband impeached and removed (1917); became Democratic Party candidate for U.S. Senate but withdrew when her husband ran and lost (1922); elected governor of Texas (1924); inaugurated (1925); lost renomination (1926); lost nomination for governor (1930); won nomination and was elected governor for second term (1932); announced she would not run again (1934); lost nomination for governor (1940); retired to Austin (1944); supported Lyndon B. Johnson candidacy for U.S. senate (1948).

Life at the head of a prosperous middle-class family in Texas appealed to Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson. She was an educated woman, quiet and cultivated, comfortable as a small-town matron, jealous of her privacy, and home oriented. When her husband entered politics, she had already been married for 15 years. Two years later, after Governor James E. ("Farmer Jim") Ferguson made the political mistake that cost him statewide office, he began to take the political steps that were to propel Miriam onto the political playing field. Ironically, Texas had been among the last states to embrace the voting franchise for women, and Miriam Ferguson had not been its advocate. She voiced suspicion of women as voters, in fact, preferring that "men shall attend to all public matters." But when she saw running for office as a means of aiding her husband, she declared herself "eager to help her Jim."

When Miriam met Jim Ferguson, he was a wily and ambitious young lawyer. Both had attended a Texas preparatory school, Salado College; Miriam had gone on to Baylor Female College in Belton, Texas, but Jim had left in his mid-teens to wander as far as California, working as a miner, bellhop, vineyard laborer, roustabout in a barbed-wire factory, teamster, lumberjack, and railroad employee. In the late 1890s, he was back in Texas, where he settled down to the study of law.

Following the death of Miriam's well-to-do father, Joseph Lapsley Wallace, Jim (who was indirectly related to the Wallaces) became the family's financial and legal advisor. On New Year's Eve, 1899, he and Miriam were married. Soon afterward, in partnership with another man, Jim Ferguson opened the Farmers' State Bank in Belton, Texas. Next, he organized the Temple (Texas) State Bank, a larger venture that also did well.

Jim Ferguson's real political involvement began in 1914. Claiming that Texas needed a businessman as governor, he half-heartedly tried to persuade a well-known Texas investor to run, but after the older man refused because of age and a lack of interest, Jim filed for the office. A teetotaler, Jim Ferguson was adamantly opposed to Prohibition, claiming that it diverted the energies of government away from fundamental problems. With a canny instinct for the issues that could engage the people of his state, he turned his campaign into a struggle over the Prohibitionist sentiments then sweeping the country. By adroitly opposing anti-liquor laws, gaining financial support from liquor companies, and promising a new land-rent law, he won the Democratic nomination and then the general election.

As governor, Jim Ferguson began to compile a strong record, with policies that were an odd amalgam of regular Democratic Party issues as well as Populist and Progressive reforms, involving improvements in education and the state penitentiary, and a bonded warehouse where farmers could store grain and cotton at reasonable rates to wait for an improvement in market prices. In 1916, "Farmer Jim" was reelected for a second two-year term, but during the campaign, he was charged with various misuses of state and campaign funds. Then, by miscalculating the power of the regents who ran the University of Texas, the governor committed the mistake that would cost him his office. When he showed his displeasure with certain administrators and professors by trying to have them fired, Will C. Hogg, the son of a well-respected former governor and brother of Ima Hogg , led the resistance among the regents, prompting the governor to veto the university's annual appropriation, which forced the institution to run on deficiency warrants. In reaction, the governor found himself accused of banking misconduct, then indicted for embezzlement and misuse of public funds.

The response of the governor was to post bail and announce that he would seek a third term in 1918, but in a special session of the legislature he was ousted from office, and the state senate took the further step of providing that he should thereafter "be disqualified to hold any office of honor, trust or profit under the State of Texas." When he still managed to get the Democratic nomination in 1918, he was easily defeated by the incumbent, his former lieutenant governor, William Hobby.

Since he was not disbarred by law from running for a national office, Jim Ferguson created his own party to run for the presidency of the United States in 1920 and polled about 50,000 votes as the American Party nominee. In 1922, he filed for the U.S. Senate race in Texas. To be on the safe side, however, he also filed candidate papers for Miriam, in case he should be ruled out of the race.

The Ku Klux Klan provided Farmer Jim with the issue he could exploit as he had with Prohibition. In the Senate race, he was defeated by the Klan candidate, former railroad commissioner and future senator Earl B. Mayfield. In 1924, he filed for the gubernatorial race as an anti-Klan candidate and was ready again—when the courts upheld his disbarment—for Miriam to step in.

If Miriam Amanda Ferguson seemed an unlikely candidate, ill-suited for Texas' raucous election scene, she was in one sense perfect for the role. She was not a professional politician, and in most cases she was unwilling to speak ill of opponents, making her campaign appearances a respite from the rough and rowdy politics of the time. Still, her advisors made her seem a fool, and while she accepted their advice, she resented it. When a newspaper reporter could not fit MRS. FERGUSON in a headline and instead used her initials MA FERGUSON, she became "Ma" Ferguson, which she also hated. But her daughter Ouida Ferguson Nalle later wrote, "Mamma pitched into that campaign with a pep and fury no one suspected she had in her."

"Me for Ma, And I Ain't Got a Dern Thing Against Pa" soon became the campaign slogan. Ouida arranged for her mother to pose for photographs at a farm she owned, wearing a sunbonnet borrowed from the tenant farmer's wife, canning peaches and feeding the chickens. In rural Texas, the ploy was good politics: the bonnet became "Ma's" symbol. "Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet with the Blue Ribbon on It" became her song, parodied by her supporters:

Get out your old time bonnet
And put Miriam Ferguson on it,
And hitch your wagon to a star.
So on election day
We each of us can say
Hurrah! Governor Miriam, Hurrah!

She despised the song, as well as the press' decision to dub the race as a contest between "the bonnet and the hood." As in many Texas elections without an incumbent, a multitude of candidates joined the field. Only four were serious contenders, and two were named Davidson. They took votes from each other, allowing Ferguson to enter the run-off primary against the Klan-backed hopeful, Judge Felix Robertson. Klan leaders, following the racist temper of the times, called it a contest between the K.K.K. and the J.J.J. (Jew, Jug, and Jesuit).

This grand old state is mighty great too big for one to run it. It takes a pair to run it fair and Jim and Ma have done it.

—Texan jingle

Ma and Pa Ferguson (as Farmer Jim subsequently became known) often campaigned together, with Pa doing most of the talking. Their campaign slogan became: "Two Governors for the Price of One," and when opponents complained that the public was voting for Ma to make Pa governor, Pa would say, "I ask you, if your wife was governor, would you get mad and leave home or would you stick around and help her?" To his farmer friends he added that if Ma won he would be there "cuttin' wood and drawin' water" for her.

Ferguson's speeches usually began with an explanation of why she was running. In effect, it dealt first with Jim's disqualification:

Mother, father, son or brother, won't you help me? Jim and I are not seeking revenge; we are asking for the name of our children to be cleared of this awful judgment. If any wrong has been done, God in heaven knows we have suffered enough. Though we have lost most of our earthly possessions in these years of trouble, we shall not complain if the people will keep us from losing our family name which we want to leave to our children.

At other rallies she might add:

I have a little bright-eyed grandson that I love dearer than life itself. If somebody wants to point the finger of scorn at him and say, "Your grandfather was impeached by the senate of Texas," I want that grandson to be able to say: "Yes, and as a rebuke to that impeachment that denied Grandfather the right to go to the people, my dear Grandmother was elected governor."

Admitting that she knew little about governing, Ferguson would add that she had trust in her redeemer to guide her footsteps "in the path of righteousness for the good of our people and the good of our State."

Although she ran second to Robertson in the first primary, Ferguson beat him by a majority of 97,732 votes in the second. An abortive effort to keep her off the Democratic ticket failed in the courts; petitioners had asked that she be disqualified by the so-called common-law disability against women in office. In November, she easily defeated the Republican candidate, George C. Butte, dean of the University of Texas Law School. After the election, she reportedly said, "We departed in disgrace; we now return in glory!"

Norman D. Brown in Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug argues that "Mrs. Ferguson was governor in name only." Jim Ferguson set up an office next to hers in the capitol, and, when individuals arrived for an audience with the governor, the secretary would ask which governor the caller wanted to see, "Governor 'Ma' or Governor Jim?" Ma's private secretary, Ghent Sanderford, reported: "On the all-important things where there's lots at stake … [Pa] controlled that. But small matters, small matters, routines of the office and like that, she did it." Sanderford added, "If the people hadn't thought that [Pa] would be the governor himself, they never would have elected Mrs. Ferguson."

Although a number of constructive laws were passed during Miriam Ferguson's tenure, a variety of controversies developed. After a struggle, she succeeded in having the legislature restore her husband's rights to run for office. Her administration launched a road-building program under the auspices of Pa, who was then charged with seeking bribes; advertisements by road builders were said to increase dramatically in The Ferguson Forum.

Perhaps the most telling criticism concerned pardons. In the first 20 months, she commuted 2,000 sentences, and executive clemency was ultimately granted to 3,595 criminals. Apparently, Jim handled the "paperwork," allegedly taking "donations" from pardon attorneys. A joke popular in Austin described a day when a young man entered an elevator and accidentally stepped on Miriam's foot. "Pardon me, Governor," he said. "See my husband," she advised; "he handles those." According to another story, Pa, upon being approached by a man wanting clemency for his son, began talking about a horse he had for sale for $5,000. The father, missing the drift of the conversation, asked, "Well, why would I want a horse?" Pa answered, "I figured if you bought him your son might ride him home from the penitentiary."

In 1926, Miriam Ferguson sought reelection, running against a popular attorney general, Dan Moody, who, along with the Fergusons had almost ended the Klan in Texas. "Fergusonism" had come to symbolize corruption and demagoguery to many voters, and Ma was criticized for letting Pa be the state's governor. Ferguson promised to quit the race if Moody beat her in the first primary, but when he did, she didn't. Nevertheless, "Dan the Man" overwhelmed her in the run-off, and the Fergusons declared they were retiring from politics. A wiser small-town merchant said, "Old Jim will never be out of the political arena in Texas until he is placed four feet underground!"

In 1928, the Fergusons supported Alvin M. Owsley in the U.S. Senate race and Louis J. Wardlaw for governor. Two years later, Pa filed in his own right to be the state's chief executive, believing that the impeachment disqualification had been successfully lifted in 1925. To his chagrin, party leaders refused to certify his candidacy, and when he sued, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the law granting him amnesty had been invalid; he was barred forever from office in Texas.

Once more, Miriam Ferguson was forced into duty. The New York Times had judged Ferguson "a good woman and a good wife" but not a "brilliant success as governor." She lost the second primary by 89,000 votes to millionaire publisher Ross Sterling, of the Houston Post-Dispatch, who had styled himself as the "Big Fat Boy from Buffalo Bayou." Governor Sterling had a miserable administration, and two years later Miriam beat him, by 3,798 votes.

This time, the Fergusons had a quieter, more productive administration, perhaps because of the Great Depression. They secured an issue of $20 million in "bread bonds" to help the destitute. Miriam supported the New Deal and took advantage of its relief programs; two days before Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a bank holiday nationally, she declared one locally, and sound Texas banks were ultimately reopened. She met the problems of overproduction in the oil industry with a two-cents-per-barrel severance tax, and secured legalization of parimutuel betting on horse races to increase state revenue. She did not get a state sales tax or corporate income tax passed, and she again had trouble over pardoning.

In 1934, the Fergusons announced that Miriam would not seek reelection, claiming that she felt bound by the state's tradition against a third term. Jim had been elected a member of the Democratic National Committee for Texas, but when Vice-President John Nance ("Cactus Jack") Garner wanted the position, Jim resigned as a matter of courtesy.

The Ferguson family, however, was not yet finished with politics: Pa actively supported unsuccessful candidates in 1936 and 1938. When Franklin Roosevelt decided to run for a third term in 1940, the Fergusons backed him, and Miriam, now 65 years old, filed for the governor's office, facing an opponent who was possibly more colorful than Pa, the incumbent governor, Wilbur Lee O'Daniel. O'Daniel was a master trader who had built a financial empire on his Hill-Billy Flour enterprise and became widely known as "Pass the Biscuits Pappy" through his radio program. A guitar-playing troubadour, his nickname came from his theme song, sung to the tune of "I Like Mountain Music."

Jim, in his late 60s, was no match for the younger Pappy, who, when questioned closely by an audience, picked up his guitar and played "Beautiful Texas" or "The Boy Who Never Got Too Old to Comb His Mother's Hair." Miriam attacked him as a "medicine-man governor," and Jim called him a "slick-haired banjo picker," who answered questions by "grinning like a jackass in a thistle patch." Pappy was reelected, and Miriam ran a miserable fourth. The following year, in a special election to replace Senator Andrew Jackson Houston, Pa supported Pappy, his way of getting the political minstrel out of the state.

Jim Ferguson died in 1944. He had opposed Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1941 senatorial race, but Miriam endorsed the future president when he ran for senator against Coke Stevenson in 1948; Governor Stevenson had not attended Pa's funeral.

In her last years, Ma lived in Austin doing what she liked most, keeping house and raising flowers. In 1955, she was feted by Texas Democrats on her 80th birthday, and three flowers were named for her: a new amaryllis and a new iris called "Governor Miriam A. Ferguson," and a new day lily, the "Ma Ferguson." Six years later, on June 25, 1961, she died of a heart attack and was buried in the state cemetery beside her beloved Jim.

In 1925, a popular joke in Texas asked, "How does it feel to have a woman governor?" The reply was, "I don't know; we haven't got one." Pa ran the show, as he always had. Still, the election of Miriam Amanda Ferguson was important. She was the first woman elected to a full term as governor in any American state, sharing the honor of being raised to the office that year with Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming; both women were elected on November 4, 1924, but Ross was chosen to complete the unexpired term of her husband, who had died, and was inaugurated on January 5, 1925, 15 days before Ferguson. In contrast to Texas, Wyoming had also led the United States in women's suffrage.

On November 7, 1924, The New York Times asked, tongue-in-cheek, whether Ma and the new governor of Wyoming should be called "Governine" or "Governette," since "Governess" wouldn't do. More to the point, the newspaper stated, "If they make good Governors it will be not because they are women, but because they have sense, intelligence and character."


Brown, Norman D., Hood, Bonnet, and Little Brown Jug: Texas Politics, 1921–1928. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1984.

Farrel, Mary D., and Elizabeth Silverthorne. First Ladies of Texas: A History. Belton, TX: Stillhouse Hollow Publications, 1976.

Gallagher, Robert S. "Me for Ma—and I ain't got a dern thing against Pa," in American Heritage. Vol. XVII, no. 6. October 1966, pp. 46–47, 105–106.

Gould, Lewis L. Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1973.

Green, George Norris. The Establishment in Texas Politics: The Primitive Years, 1938–1957. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Jones, Billy M. "Miriam Amanda Ferguson," in Women of Texas. Waco, TX: Texian Press, 1972, pp. 157–73.

Luthin, Reinhard H. American Demagogues: Twentieth Century. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1954.

Nalle, Ouida Ferguson. The Fergusons of Texas or "Two Governors for the Price of One." San Antonio, TX: Naylor, 1946.

The New York Times. May 31, 1922; November 7, 1924; January 23, April 5, 1925; February 13, August 3, 1926; July 26, 31, August 30, 1932; May 14, 1933; August 28, 1934; June 26, 1961.

suggested reading:

Alexander, Charles C. Crusade For Conformity: The Ku Klux Klan in Texas, 1920–1938. Houston, TX: Gulf Coast Historical Association, 1962.

——. The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 1965.

Bolton, Paul. Governors of Texas. Corpus Christi, TX: Caller-Times, 1947.

Calbert, Jack Lynn, "James Edward and Miriam Amanda Ferguson: The 'Ma' and 'Pa' of Texas Politics," Doctoral Dissertation, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1968.

De Shields, James T. They Sat in High Places. San Antonio, TX: Naylor, 1940.

McKay, Seth S. Texas Politics, 1906–1944. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1952.

——. W. Lee O'Daniel and Texas Politics, 1938-1942. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech, 1944.

——, and Odie B. Faulk. Texas After Spindletop. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1965.

Robert S. La Forte , Professor of History, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas

About this article

Ferguson, Miriam A. (1875–1961)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article