Ross, Nellie Tayloe (1876–1977)
Ross, Nellie Tayloe (1876–1977)
American politician, director of the U.S. Mint, and first woman governor. Born Nellie Tayloe on November 29, 1876, near St. Joseph, Missouri; died in Washington, D.C., on December 20, 1977; daughter of James Wynns Tayloe (a merchant and farmer) and Elizabeth (Blair) Tayloe; had private tutoring and occasional public schooling in Missouri and Kansas; had two years of training in Omaha, Nebraska as kindergarten teacher; married William Bradford Ross (later governor of Wyoming), on September 11, 1902 (died 1924); children: (twins) George and Ambrose (b. 1903); Alfred (b. 1905, died young); William Bradford II (b. 1912).
Worked for Cheyenne, Wyoming, community activities, including Cheyenne Woman's Club, Boy Scouts and Episcopal Church (1902–22); was wife of governor (1922–24); elected governor of Wyoming (1925–27); served as vice-chair, Democratic National Committee (1928–33); served as director of U.S. Mint (1933–53).
On November 4, 1924, the voters of Wyoming were electing a governor, and many filed in and out of the garage of the Executive Mansion, a regularly designated polling place. They were watched from an upstairs window by Nellie Tayloe Ross, widow of the governor who had suddenly died a month before. Despite her initial reluctance, Nellie Ross had been persuaded to accept the Democratic Party's nomination as his successor at an emergency convention. She thought the people looked "unusually grave and resolute," and she wondered "how many—if any—were casting their ballots for me." She remained alone in her room that night with only a telephone beside her. The phone began to ring, with reports of a national Republican landslide in which the Democratic presidential nominee received one of the lowest votes on record. Yet Nellie Ross, a Democrat in a Republican-majority state, a woman running for governor just four years after the 19th Amendment provided all American women with the vote, was elected by an ample margin; the more than 43,000 votes she received exceeded those received by any previous candidate in the history of the state and made her the first woman governor in the nation.
Nellie Tayloe's early life gave no promise of the long public career ahead. Born in 1876 near St. Joseph, Missouri, Nellie was a sickly child whose mother died when she was young. She later recalled that her father, a merchant and "gentleman farmer," and three brothers tended to spoil her, and she believed she must have been "weak and inefficient." Her infrequent attendance at public schools had to be supplemented by private tutors, but she studied hard and earned good grades. She graduated from a two-year course in Omaha, Nebraska, to prepare her to teach kindergarten, but her health prevented her from a career as a teacher.
In 1902, she married William Bradford Ross, a young lawyer who had moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, the year before to begin his practice. The couple had twin sons, George and Ambrose, in 1903. Another son was born in 1905, but died at the age of ten months when, left briefly unattended in his carriage on the lawn, the carriage overturned and he was smothered in the blankets. A fourth son, William Bradford II, was born in 1912. Nellie Ross was not, according to her own account, "militantly or aggressively identified … with public affairs." Still, she was involved in the community. In addition to activities in her church and the Boy Scouts, she became a member of the elite Cheyenne Woman's Club. In later years, she deplored its exclusivity—at the time of her election there were only 25 members—but she admitted that its demands on members to prepare and present as many as three lengthy papers every year on the history, literature, art, philosophy and religion of many different countries gave her the sort of training in public speaking that men might have received in county boards, municipal councils, and legislative halls. Her husband discussed many of his cases with her, and listened to her criticisms with respect. In the evenings, since their three active boys made it hard to find "any person brave enough" to care for them at night, the couple entertained themselves by reading aloud to each other, which Ross later credited with strengthening her voice for public speaking. She also thought that the experience of meeting the constant demands of babies transformed her into a useful and self-reliant person. Despite her later accomplishments, she believed that women found greatest happiness and fulfillment in the role of wife and mother.
Although the Democratic Party was in the minority in Wyoming at the turn of the century, William Bradford Ross was elected county attorney in 1904, after winning a well-publicized case against local officials who would not enforce recently enacted laws against gambling. After his return to private life, Nellie hoped he would not be drawn into politics again, and he agreed that holding public office might jeopardize the practice he was building. In 1922, however, the Democrats urged William to run for the governorship, and Nellie did not thwart his ambition. A split in the Republican Party resulted in his victory. In addition to her responsibilities as Wyoming's first lady for official entertaining, Nellie Ross continued to discuss her husband's business with him. They traveled together on official trips, and she helped him write his speeches. On Labor Day, 1924, he asked her to help him compose a short proclamation, after his secretary proved unequal to the task. He thought so
highly of her assistance that afterwards he joked about writing a letter of recommendation to attach to his will.
Shortly afterwards, following an operation on September 24, Governor Ross unexpectedly developed septic phlebitis and died on October 2. A special election was called to fill the vacancy for the two remaining years of his four-year term. The State Democratic Committee urged Nellie Ross to run, and nominated her despite her reluctance to do so. Finally she consented and filed. Although concerned that she might not have the physical stamina to do the job, she was eager to see her husband's unfinished work completed, and to find work which would absorb her. She did not doubt her ability to do the job, believing that she understood her husband's program better than anyone else. She also admitted to having been influenced by the rumor that the state might offer her a pension, since she "recoiled" from the idea of an unearned "gratuity."
Nellie Ross did not campaign during the short time which remained, but she released two letters to the public. In one, she promised to do all she could to implement her husband's agenda; in the other, she assured women voters that she would do her utmost to give no one cause to say that women should not hold high executive office. Her opponent Eugene Sullivan was handicapped by ties to the oil industry while public indignation was still raw from the Teapot Dome scandal. Ross believed that many who voted for her wished to pay tribute to her husband by supporting her. Woman suffrage had been granted first in the Wyoming Territory, in 1869; now, over 50 years later, the state of Wyoming elected the first woman governor. She was, it was said, the first governor ever inaugurated in a hat, and stylish hats became her trademark.
Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman governor only by a narrow margin; another woman, Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson , was elected in Texas on the same day, but inaugurated two weeks after Ross. There was, however, an important difference between them: Ferguson was running for a seat vacated by her husband James who was impeached in 1917 and barred from holding state office. His supporters had elected his wife supposing that she would be merely his proxy. Governor Ross, as a widow, was entirely responsible for her own administration.
Because she had been so familiar with her husband's work, Ross was not particularly daunted by the challenges. When pondering difficult questions in the governor's office with its restful atmosphere of dark rich furniture and soft blue upholstery, she said, "the thought often occurred to me that probably none of those other governors, looking down at me from the walls above, knew at first any more about such matters than I did, and they, like me, just had to investigate and learn."
Nellie Ross faced formidable challenges. The only Democrat in any elective office in the state house, she faced a Republican legislature and a Republican majority on the boards that conducted much of the state's business. Some speculated that she might dismiss all her male employees and pardon all convicted felons. The press, too, was far from friendly; on one occasion, when the road she was traveling to the western border of the state crossed into Idaho for a few miles, a local paper reported that during her absence from the state, the acting governor would be in charge. Not surprisingly, her proposals—for tax relief for farmers and legislation to require county, school board, and state councils to publish budgets before levying taxes—were defeated.
Ross realized that the hostile legislature not only sought to challenge her, they felt confident that because she was a woman, they would prevail. She successfully fought against amendments to a banking reform law that would have curtailed the governor's prerogatives and compromised the effect of the reform. On another occasion, a law creating a new office was held up because the legislature did not approve of the governor's likely choice to fill it. They promised to pass the bill if she would promise not to appoint him. "The governor is not bargaining with the legislature," she replied. The bill passed. She also dismissed a sheriff from office because of violation of the Prohibition laws. Her adherence to principle in these cases would later cost her crucial votes in the next election.
Another political liability was incurred when she vetoed a bill calling for a special election in the event of a Wyoming vacancy in the U.S. Senate, arguing that a special election would be too costly. Wyoming's octogenarian senator, Francis E. Warren, had just been elected to a sixth term. Her political rivals were fearful that he might die, and she would appoint a Catholic advisor during a time when the Ku Klux Klan had influence in Wyoming politics. During the campaign, they contended that a "vote for the woman Governor is a vote for a Democratic Senator." In a predominantly Republican state, it proved a compelling argument.
Almost as trying as partisan rivalry was the intense scrutiny she endured as a "Lady Governor." Motion-picture directors wanted to film her making bread. Character readers analyzed her photographs. Strangers wishing to visit her at home became angry when turned away, even when she was ill.
In her 1926 reelection campaign, Governor Ross ran on her record, forbidding any negative campaigning or use of any paid workers. She made no attempt to appeal to women voters as such, merely challenging her opponents to point to a single act where she had failed because she was a woman. Though no such accusation was made, the Republican nominee, Frank C. Emerson, simply repeated again and again that the governorship was no place for a woman. She lost by less than 1,300 votes in an election in which other Democratic candidates were defeated by far larger margins. Afterwards, observing that the change of a single vote in each precinct would have secured her reelection, Ross believed she should have organized the state's women.
There are no leisure moments in the life of a woman governor, but neither are there any dull ones.
—Nellie Tayloe Ross
Ross took this observation into her next job, when she became vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1928. She seconded the nomination of Alfred E. Smith at the national convention that year, seeing hope for his election in the "great masses of people who have not surrendered utterly to materialism, but who are still jealous for the spiritual welfare of the nation." She campaigned for him throughout the fall, working closely with Eleanor Roosevelt . Ross insisted that a "dry" like herself could still support the governor of a state which had repealed its Prohibition enforcement laws, and that a Protestant could support a Catholic to reaffirm freedom of conscience.
She continued to organize women voters from a Washington, D.C., office during the next four years, encouraged that the Democratic Party seemed to consider that "women are not voters merely, but co-workers with men." She hoped that women would join parties because of ideological reasons, rather than family tradition. "If universal suffrage is to mean only an increased number of votes … directed by masculine opinion," she said, "it will mean only a duplication of votes and not a contribution to the … advancement of the country." Through speeches and journal articles, she urged the election of Democrats to Congress in 1930. In 1932, she undertook a nationwide speaking tour on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Pointing out that the Republican administrations throughout the 1920s had appointed few women to important posts, she urged the Democrats to improve on that record, and collaborated with Molly Dewson , Eleanor Roosevelt and others to help them do so. Franklin Roosevelt appointed Nellie Tayloe Ross director of the Mint, where she supervised the manufacture of all coins and was responsible for the safekeeping of the government's stocks of gold and silver. She took office on May 3, 1933, and served for the next 20 years. "The business of the mint is different from any other business," she discovered. "There is real romance in it."
The Mint's activities had been limited because of the Depression, but as new monetary laws were enacted, her small staff was severely stressed. When business improved during the following year, the demand for coin increased activities, and, by 1940, the Mints were operating 24 hours a day, every day. Staff, working and storage space, and machinery were added, and three new Mint depositories were constructed. In 1940, Ross was appointed to head the Treasury Assay Committee to randomly test coins minted during the previous year. In addition to being the first woman director of the Mint, Ross was the first woman to have her likeness on a Mint medal, and the first to have her name on the cornerstone of a government building.
Although she had resigned her position on the Democratic National Committee to accept her appointment to the Mint, Ross took a temporary leave of absence from her official post to work full-time on the 1936 campaign. She served as an alternate on the platform committee, as did several other New Deal women, and their ideas on child labor, consumer interests, housing, education, civil liberties, and world peace made their way into the platform. In 1940, the Hatch Act, passed the previous year, limited political activity by government workers, much to Ross' chagrin.
Reappointed to another five-year term in 1938, and again in 1943, Ross was faced with new challenges during the war years, which saw an increased demand for coins for vending machines and jukeboxes, as well as for cash-and-carry stores and excise taxes. Spiraling pressure on the coin supply and metal shortages led her to issue the controversial zinc-coated penny. By the time she retired in 1953, she had supervised the coinage of two-thirds of the Mint's production since it was founded in 1792. After leaving office, the woman who had never gone on a public platform before her husband's death continued to be in demand as a speaker and, in 1969, boasted that she had "lectured in every state in the Union, in many of them repeatedly." At the centennial celebration of Yellowstone Park, Ross, in her 90s, delivered a memorable address.
Although Nellie Tayloe Ross had always given her age as "over twenty-one," she allowed her 100th birthday to be celebrated along with the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. She died in Washington, D.C., the following year. Although she was 48 before she assumed public office, she had demonstrated that women, given the opportunity, could rise to the occasion. "I have never contended that women are better fitted than men for political life," she wrote, "but surely there is no basis for belief that they are less so."
Brown, Mabel E., ed. First Ladies of Wyoming 1869–1990. The Wyoming Commission for Women, 1990.
Ross, Nellie Tayloe. "The Governor Lady: Nellie Tayloe Ross," in Good Housekeeping. August 1927, p. 30; September 1927, p. 36; October 1927, p.72.
Roosevelt, Eleanor, and Lorena Hickok . Ladies of Courage. NY: Putnam, 1954.
Ross papers are at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and additional official records are at the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne. Information on her public career can be found at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and the Harry S. Truman Library, as well as in the Joseph C. Mahoney papers at the University of Wyoming.
Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)