Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross

Nellie Tayloe Ross
Book Review
Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross
Biography by Teva J. Scheer
University of Missouri Press, 2005
Hardcover, 297 pages with index

Governor Lady begins with an action scene, as should all good reads. Nellie, as author Scheer refers to her throughout, is seven years old and standing with her family on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Joseph, as they try unsuccessfully to save their burning home.

Born in St. Joseph, Nellie was the first female governor in the United States, elected four years after women in the U.S. won the right to vote. Although she and Miriam (Ma) Ferguson were elected governors on November 4, 1924—Nellie in Wyoming and Ferguson in Texas—Nellie was sworn in two weeks before Ferguson and remains the only woman governor of Wyoming.

A strong and dignified woman
Nellie never considered herself to be a spokesperson for women’s liberation. “Candidates for public office should not be chosen on the basis of sex,” she told an interviewer. “Being a woman should not mitigate for or against someone.” Nellie was admired and respected by men and women in and out of government, while many others felt she should be a “normal” wife and mother rather than be exposed to the “immoral, coarse, and mannish” world of male-dominated politics in the early twentieth century.

Scheer describes Nellie as a dignified lady who was thrust into a political career by the death in office of her husband, Wyoming governor William Bradford Ross. Following her defeat for reelection in 1926, Nellie became a sought-after speaker on the national Chautauqua circuit, vice chairman of the National Democratic Committee, and the first woman director of the U.S. Mint.

The subtitle, Life and Times, enables Scheer to cover social, cultural, and economic issues that helped establish whom Nellie was and whom she would become. Coverage sometimes is mired in requirements of academic research which detracts from effective storytelling; an undesirable and understandable flaw since Scheer wrote the book as her doctoral thesis.

Nothing like her peers
For the most part, Scheer’s narrative is engaging and gratifying. She portrays a strong southern woman whose Civil War roots were destroyed (her mother’s family owned slaves), who became a powerful cultural icon; an intriguing and gentle woman with a will of iron, whose “career and social life were as important to her as her family.” Unlike her contemporaries in the “first generation of female politicians and federal executives,” she had no college degree, had not worked her way up through the ranks, and did not give up marriage and family for a career. In short, she was a pioneering representative for the rights and opportunities of women.

When Nellie died in 1977 at age 101, she had “lived through the last years of the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Her life spanned the administrations of twenty-one presidents.”

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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