Nellie Tayloe Ross was destined for politics even if her indoctrination was indirect. Nellie Taylor could claim a distant relation to George Washington on her mother’s side of the family. On her father’s side, his family built the Octagon House where President James Madison and his wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison, lived when the British burned down the White House in 1812.
Nellie had a brief teaching career before she met the man she would marry. She and her family moved to Omaha, Nebraska after Nellie completed high school in Kansas. She attended a teacher-training college and taught kindergarten. During a respite to visit relatives in Tennessee, she met William Bradford Ross, a shopkeeper who engaged in the practice of law. They were soon married and moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
William Ross ran for office and, after a number of attempts, finally was elected to the office of Governor of Wyoming in 1922. Less than two years later, he underwent an appendectomy and died from complications after surgery. It was just a few short weeks prior to the 1924 election in which Ross was again running for the office of Governor.
The Democratic Party needed a candidate and made an offer to Nellie to run in her husband’s place. When Nellie did not respond to the offer, the party nominated her anyway.
Nellie accepted the nomination even though she had no political experience. She viewed it as a way to cope with her widowhood. More than likely, Ross won sympathy for being a new widow with three children. Regardless of the reason for her winning the election, on Jan. 5, 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman Governor in the United States.
Once in office, Ross continued her husband’s platform but being a Democrat in a Republican state didn’t make the job easy. She was able to achieve state assistance tot he struggling agricultural industry as well as protective legislation for miners, women and children. But a request to ratify an amendment prohibiting child labor was unsuccessful.
Ross vetoed a bill to hold a special election to fill a Wyoming vacancy in the Senate as opposed to filling it with an official appointed by the Governor. This action made her very unpopular with the Republicans who wanted a Republican to fill that seat. It was this veto which may have cost her the 1926 election.
Once defeated in 1926, Ross turned to lecturing and writing articles, particularly about her tenure as Governor. She became active in politics, serving as committeewoman to the Democratic National Committee and working on the campaign to elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as President.
When Roosevelt was elected, he returned the favor by appointing Ross the Director of the U.S. Mint. Again, Ross established another first for women: she was the first woman to head a federal agency.
Ross excelled in this capacity, streamlining the U.S. Mint operations. She returned about $1 million of her $4.8 million appropriation and reduced the number of employees at the mint from 4000 to 1000. Ross remained the Director of the U.S. Mint until the end of the Roosevelt administration.
Ross continued contributing articles to women’s magazines and traveling well into her nineties. She visited the state of Wyoming for the last time at the age of 96.
Ross died Dec. 17, 1977 at the age of 101.
The Ross home, where two Wyoming governers lived – both William and Nellie – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The book “Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross” by Teva J. Scheer was published by the University of Missouri Press, November 2005.