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Women’s History Month: Wyoming elects first woman governor in U.S. History

Did you know that Wyoming was the first state in the nation to elect a woman as governor?

GILLETTE, Wyo. – Wyoming has a long list of firsts in the pages of history. 

Since statehood, the state has had the first county public library, the first national park, the first national monument, and was the first state in the Union to grant women the right to vote. 

In 1924, Wyoming added another critical first to the growing list and set the bar for the rest of the nation by electing the first woman governor in United States history: Nellie Tayloe Ross. 

Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross (National Governor’s Association)

While not a Wyoming native, Ross moved to the state and married Governor William B. Ross, then an idealistic lawyer, in 1902. She stuck to her husband’s side, giving birth to their family as his law firm saw success and he grew to a prominent leader within the Wyoming Democratic Party, according to Wyoming History Day. 

Governor William Ross won the gubernatorial election in 1923 and, over the year and 10 months that he served in office before his death, Nellie was there to offer support and consult her husband on various political issues, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society. 

While the state fell under the leadership of Governor Frank Lucas, who as Wyoming Secretary of State succeeded Governor William Ross in 1924, Nellie reportedly began to have ambitions for the governor’s office, WSHS says. 

Nellie Ross faced a conundrum. It wasn’t considered proper at the time for a woman to express high ambitions and she warred with how she could justify her run for office. She contemplated stating that her bid stemmed from an unselfish desire to finish her late husband’s work and turned down state job offer after state job offer, per WSHS. 

On Oct. 15, 1924, Nellie Ross received the news that the Wyoming Democratic Party had nominated her as their gubernatorial candidate and she entered the race to face off against the Republican Party candidate Eugene J. Sullivan, according to WSHS. 

The campaign trail didn’t follow the traditional route; Nelly Ross was still in mourning and didn’t campaign nearly as hard as Sullivan, WSHS says, but she continued to draw supporters, many of whom took out ads on her behalf in the months leading up to the election. 

Gov. Nellie Ross, second from right, in Washington, D.C., 1925. Her friend Eula B. Kendrick is on the left, and Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, is in the center. (Wyoming State Archives)

She even drew support from U.S. Sen. John B. Kendrick who reportedly said, “how fitting it was that the Equality State be the first to elect a woman governor,” per WSHS. 

Ross won in a landslide, WSHS says, defeating Sullivan by 8,000 votes, and was officially sworn into office in 1925. 

During her years in office before being defeated by Frank Emerson in 1926, Ross pushed for spending cuts, state loans for farmers and ranchers, and strong prohibition enforcement, per WSHS, all of which were policies supported by her husband. 

She also pushed for laws requiring local governments and school districts to have budgets, laws for stronger banking regulations, laws to improve coal miner safety, and even proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to cut back on child labor, among other things, per WSHS. 

Following her defeat to Emerson, Ross put Wyoming behind her and moved to Washington D.C. after accepting positions with the federal government and served for 20 years as the director of the U.S. Bureau of the Mint before eventually retiring in 1953, WSHS says.