Nellie Tayloe Ross

Hillary Clinton’s election run for President, Michelle Obama’s active interest in social causes as the First Lady and Nikki Haley’s election as governor of South Carolina showcase the best side of the United States of America , upholding the ideals of freedom and equality.  But much before any of them, the US saw the election of Nellie Tayloe Ross as the first woman governor in the nation, for the state of Wyoming.

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Contesting after the death of her husband William B. Ross who was the erstwhile Democrat governor, Ross was driven not only by a desire to carry forward his work but also by her shrewd political acumen and ambition. At a time when it was “unladylike” for a woman to have such aspirations, Nellie was sworn in as governor on January 5, 1924. Growing up as a Southerner in Missouri soon after the Civil War, her difficult childhood taught her the value of hardwork. The uncertainty in her life was definitely a factor that fed her ambition to succeed.

In 1869, Wyoming Territory had been the first government in the world to grant women permanently the right to vote. In 1894, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Estelle Reel was the first woman ever elected to statewide office. In 1920, women won the vote nationwide. Now, just four years later, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the first woman governor in the nation.Excerpt from ‘The Ambition of Nellie Tayloe Ross’ , Tom Rea

Apart from continuing to back a few of her husband’s proposals, she suggested several new proposals that had hitherto never been formally raised in Wyoming- “requiring cities, counties, and school districts to have budgets; stronger state laws regulating banks; exploration of better ways to sell Wyoming’s heavy crude oil; earmarking some state mineral royalties for school districts; obtaining more funds for the university; improving safety for coal miners; protecting women in industrial jobs; and supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would cut back on child labor.”

“It is most amusing and amazing to me, for example, to be asked, as I was soon after my election, whether I expected to appoint any men to office? This question, telegraphed to me from the East by a well-known metropolitan newspaper, had every indication of being quite sincere, and was apparently inspired by the fear that the elevation of women to executive office was likely to be followed by the dismissal of all men and the substitution of women in their places.”- Nellie Tayloe Ross

In an era when the arena of the female was primarily the domestic and her most acceptable role as a charming and social hostess, Nellie Ross successfully made the transition from First Lady of Wyoming to the Governor. Indeed it might seem like a favourable precedent for another charismatic First Lady that many have wanted to see at the helm of affairs.

Trying to find a middle ground between being ambitious and being perceived as ‘manly’ or ‘unfeminine’ is something female politicians and leaders are struggling with, even ninety years later. It is undeniable that even now, comments about appearance, be it positive or negative, overshadow achievements and calibre. A vast majority of online articles about women achievers begin with ‘Top 10 hottest women in…’.

Not all men abuse or molest, or are sexist, but what is the first thing men see, and women see, when they look at a woman? That is the question.

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