The History of Female Governors

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, governors are the focus of much attention across the U.S. One of them, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, is the first Democratic Latina governor in the country. Currently nine states have female governors (a record number). Women are also the head of two territories, and the mayor of Washington, DC is also a woman. In our country’s entire history, 44 women have served as governors of which 30 were elected in their own right, three succeeded their deceased husbands, and 11 became governor by constitutional succession. Arizona is the first state where a woman succeeded another woman as governor; it also holds the record for having had four women governors.

Certainly an argument could be made that there is still a long way to go until women reach parity with men in the governorships. Let’s start with some interesting facts about the history of women governors and then learn more about some of the early female governors who paved the way.

  • Nellie Tayloe Ross

    In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross won a special election in Wyoming to succeed her deceased husband, becoming the first woman governor in the U.S.

  • In 1985, Madeleine Kunin was elected the governor of Vermont. She was the first and only woman governor to serve three terms.
  • In 1987, Kay Orr was elected governor of Nebraska. She was the first elected Republican woman governor and the first woman governor to defeat another female candidate for the office.
  • In 1991, Joan Finney of Kansas, became the first woman governor to defeat an incumbent governor.
  • In 2001, Sila Calderon became the first woman governor of Puerto Rico.
  • In 2003, Janet Napolitano of Arizona became the first woman to succeed a woman as governor.
  • In 2011, Republicans Nikki Haley (South Carolina) and Susana Martinez (New Mexico) became the first women of color to be elected as governors.
Ella Grasso

In 1974, nearly fifty years after Nellie Tayloe Ross became Wyoming’s governor, Ella Grasso was elected the governor of Connecticut.  At that time, she became the first woman governor elected in her own right. Grasso had served in the Connecticut General Assembly since 1952 and had never lost an election. She attended Mount Holyoke College where she earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees. In the General Assembly, Grasso served as the Floor Leader, the first woman so elected. From 1958 to 1970, she served as Connecticut’s Secretary of State. Grasso became the first woman to chair the Democratic State Platform Committee and in 1970, was elected to the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was elected to a second term of governor in 1978; unfortunately, she resigned for health reasons in 1980. She is recalled fondly for remembering the needs of the working class and for paving the way for other women in politics. Grasso has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Dixy Lee Ray

The first female governor of Washington State, zoologist Dixy Lee Ray chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor organization to today’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  When elected governor in 1976, she was only the second female in the U.S. to be elected as a governor without succeeding her husband into office, the first being Ella Grasso, as noted above. A delightful “fun fact” about her: Ray climbed Mount Rainier when she was 12 years old – the youngest girl to do so. Ray earned her Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University in 1945 and pursued a scientific career. She was appointed chair of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1973 by President Nixon. Unconventional most of her life, Ray served one term as governor. After her death, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers established an award in her name given annually to recognize achievements and contributions in the area of environmental protection.

Ann Richards

The 45th governor of Texas and the second woman governor, although considered to be the first Texas female governor elected in her own right, Ann Richards was well-known for her famous one-liners and for being an avid feminist. Richards graduated from Baylor University and became a schoolteacher before being elected to the Travis County Commissioners’ Court in 1976. She became Texas State Treasurer in 1983. After she delivered speeches at the 1984 and 1988 Democratic National Convention, including giving the 1988 keynote address, she ran for governor of Texas in 1990 and was elected. She served as governor 1991-1995. Although she lost the gubernatorial election in 1994 to George W. Bush, she was a tireless campaigner for Democratic candidates. Interested in social causes, Richards remained active in politics until her death.

Christine Todd Whitman

The first woman elected governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman served in that role from 1994-2001. She graduated from Wheaton College with a bachelor’s degree in government and then worked on the presidential campaign of Nelson Rockefeller. She was elected to local boards and commissions before serving as President of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. In 1993, Whitman ran against the incumbent governor and was elected by a margin of one percentage point. After her second term as governor, Whitman served as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives.  These governors, as well as many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history! Tell young women especially, that their dreams in any field of endeavor or interest, can become a reality.

Note: Some of the information contained in this article is presented on the web site of the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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