Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross

Governor Lady: The Life and Times of Nellie Tayloe Ross

by Teva J. Scheer


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Governor Lady is the fascinating story of one of the most famous political women of her generation. Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected governor of Wyoming in 1924-just four years after American women won the vote-and she went on to be nominated for U.S. vice president in 1928, named vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee the same year, and appointed the first female director of the Mint in 1932. Ross launched her career when her husband, William Bradford Ross, the preceding governor, died, leaving her widowed with four sons and no means of supporting them. She was an ironic choice to be such a pioneer in women's rights, since she claimed her entire life that she had no interest in feminism. Nevertheless, she believed in equal opportunity and advancement in merit irrespective of gender-core feminist values. The dichotomy between Ross's career and life choices, and her stated priorities of wife and motherhood, is a critical contradiction, making her an intriguing woman.

Exhaustively researched and powerfully written, Governor Lady chronicles the challenges and barriers that a woman with no job experience, higher education, or training faced on the way to becoming a confident and effective public administrator. In addition to the discrimination and resentment she faced from some of her male associates, she also aroused the enmity of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she displaced at the DNC.

Born exactly one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ross lived to celebrate the nation's bicentennial, so her long and remarkable life exactly spanned the second U.S. century. She was reared in the Victorian era, when upper- and middle-class women were expected to be domestic, decorative, and submissive, but she died as the woman's movement was creating a multitude of opportunities for young women of the 1970s. Nellie's story will be of great interest to anyone curious about women's history and biography. The contemporary American career woman will especially identify with Ross's struggle to balance her career, family, and active personal life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826221803
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 09/28/2018
Series: Missouri Biography Series , #1
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Teva J. Scheer is a former government manager who currently is an Adjunct Faculty member at the Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado at Denver. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, with her husband and two children.

The Missouri Biography Series, edited by William E. Foley

Read an Excerpt


Missouri Roots

THE BURNING house, high on its promontory near the Missouri River, was visible for miles. A frightened seven-year-old Nellie Tayloe hugged her little sister Mattie and watched her parents and older brothers frantically toss buckets of water and beat at the flames with wet sacks. Nellie's clear blue eyes solemnly followed the white-hot tongues of flame as they darted upward, silhouetted against the black winter sky. The sparks shot up over her head like tiny fireworks, and the air was filled with the acrid odor of smoke as the fire destroyed her family's home.

In later years, Nellie almost never talked about her childhood, not with her children and friends, and certainly not with the many reporters who interviewed her. Based on the papers and records she left behind, it is almost as if her life began with her 1902 marriage to William Bradford Ross. Her brothers were just as tight-lipped about the early years as their sister. None of their descendants can recall the Tayloe siblings ever discussing their childhood. The memory of the burning house was so traumatic, however, that it was among the few stories of her early years that Nellie ever shared.

Significantly, this pivotal early memory was one of loss. It was yet another terrible blow for Nellie's parents, James Wynns Tayloe and Elizabeth Blair Green. The lives that Nellie's parents had expected to lead had been destroyed by the Civil War and its aftermath. The war obliterated the family's way of life, and her parents' financial setbacks had an indelible impact on Nellie's character. Throughout her life, Nellie was obsessed with a fear of poverty. Even though she achieved relative wealth in her later years, her stocks and real estate failed to provide her with a sense of security. Monetary considerations motivated many of her decisions and remained a theme in her letters until the end of her life.

While the family's tragedies left psychological scars, the hard times also brought the Tayloe family together. Although it took the family a generation to recover from insolvency, the hard times also helped to make Nellie and her brothers resourceful. Their hardships forged some of the most important elements of Nellie's character. All her life, Nellie was intensely loyal to her family, and her devotion to her extended family was a pillar of her personality. "It will be a sweet memory to us always to look back over these past years of our lives — so full of varied experiences — how we shared all our hardships and all our joys — and how we loved each other always," Nellie wrote to her brother George shortly after her marriage. Even though Nellie herself barely appears in this chapter of her family's story, the woman she became cannot be understood outside the context of her grandparents' and parents' experiences.

* * *

Nellie Davis Tayloe was born on November 29, 1876, on what was left of the substantial plantation that her maternal grandfather had established in Andrew County, Missouri, just outside St. Joseph. She was the sixth child and the first daughter of James and "Lizzie" Tayloe. Her parents had been struggling to make a living on the farm since their marriage in 1863. Strapped for cash and unable to pay their taxes, they were on the verge of losing their share of the family land when their house burned down. Following the fire, the Tayloes sold their acreage in March 1884, just before a sheriff's sale, and moved the family to Miltonvale, Kansas.

James Tayloe never intended to be a farmer. Born in 1832 in Stewart County, Tennessee, where his grandfather had owned a large plantation and several slaves, James's life took a turn away from farming after his father died when he was five. When his mother remarried a few years later, his new stepfather, William Bailey, moved the family to southern Kentucky, where he worked for the Hillman Iron Works. William proved to be a loving stepfather to James and his two brothers. He treated James and his brothers with kindness and insured that they all graduated from school. After James graduated, William helped him get a job as a clerk in the general store that Daniel Hillman maintained to supply his workers. James later repaid William's kindness by naming his first son Wesley Bailey Tayloe. James spent two years working in Hillman's store before striking out on his own. Then, in the spring of 1854, at age twenty-two, he moved to St. Joseph, on the very edge of the nation's westward expansion, eager to make his fortune.

St. Joseph had been founded barely a quarter-century before James Tayloe's arrival. The city remained relatively small, if prosperous, until 1848, when gold was discovered in California, and fortune seekers began to stream through St. Joseph on their way to the West. It was the largest town on the western frontier, and St. Joseph's location on the Missouri River made it a natural gathering site for the traders, soldiers, settlers, and prospectors who were heading west. It was the spot "where for a generation the nation jumped into the awesome great west." The city's farmers and businesses prospered from their sales of wagons, equipment, and provisions to the pioneers and to the military units that were scattered across the Great Plains.

In St. Joseph, James Tayloe found a raw, bustling, noisy town, teeming with construction and commerce — a perfect place for a relatively well-educated, ambitious young man to build a career and make his fortune. He found work with a general merchandise establishment that supplied the growing population of St. Joseph as well as the pioneers and the army. New construction was going up on every block of St. Joseph as the town fathers, anxious to promote St. Joseph as a city of culture and wealth, engaged European architects to construct impressive commercial blocks, theaters, and other public buildings. Newly enriched bankers, merchants, and speculators built ornate and ostentatious mansions on the hills overlooking the commercial district.

About 1858, James and two partners, J. W. Bailey and Thomas R. Smith, established a dry goods business. Their advertisement in the St. Joseph city directory of 1859–1860 announced, "Bailey, Smith & Co., Jobbers and Retailers in Fancy Dry Goods. Silks, embroideries, white goods, millinery goods, gloves, hosiery, notions, &c., &c." In addition to running their store, the partners became involved in land speculation, both in St. Joseph and across the river in Kansas, and they also underwrote several mortgages during the late 1850s and early 1860s. One parcel of land that James owned was in Andrew County, north of St. Joseph, where he and another partner held eighty acres. Either in connection with this land or in the course of his St. Joseph business, James met Elizabeth Blair Green, called Lizzie, whose family held substantial land just south of his own in Andrew County.

Lizzie Green was the daughter of Amanda Davis Green. Together with her husband, Samuel Ball Green II (who had died by the time James met Lizzie), Amanda had been part of a great wave of immigrants into Missouri from Kentucky that began in the late 1830s and continued unabated for more than three decades. As of 1860, one out of every nine Missouri residents had been born in Kentucky, bringing with them the traditions and beliefs of the Deep South, including a favorable disposition toward slavery. The Greens had arrived in Missouri by 1845, when Samuel purchased his first thirty-nine acres in Andrew County. They were among the earliest settlers in the southern end of Andrew County, whose first white residents had arrived about 1837. They found a fertile land, thick with timber and rich in game — bear, deer, wild turkey, other game birds, squirrel, rabbit, and a great variety of fish in the streams that fed the Missouri River.

The Greens worked hard and prospered in Andrew County. Just one month after his first land purchase, Samuel began to buy up additional acreage two or three times a year, as nearby property became available. By 1850, when Samuel was thirty-five and Amanda twenty-five, they had amassed a small fortune in land and slaves. Their Missouri farm and home were valued at twenty thousand dollars, and Samuel also owned thirty-six slaves that were worth as much as his real estate. Samuel had built a Georgian plantation house, considered to be among the finest homes in the County, on one of his farm's highest ridges. From the house's front steps, one looked out upon Green family fields that stretched down to the Missouri River, a few miles away. Three children had been born to the Greens — Lizzie, born in 1845; Harriet, born in 1847; and Samuel Ball Green III, born in 1850.

The fact that Samuel and Amanda had achieved wealth and position did not mean that Amanda's life was one of ease. The larger the plantation, the harder the planter's wife had to work. Another plantation mistress wrote, "It is a great mistake to suppose that the mistress or master of a large plantation ... lived in idleness. They were the busiest people I have ever known. How could it be otherwise when they had charge of a hundred or of several hundred human beings, who looked to them for everything?" The plantation mistresses usually kept the plantation's keys and maintained the inventory of household goods. They kept a set of books to track household purchases and expenditures. They supervised the slaughter and dressing of hogs, the preparation of sausage, the milking of the cows, the making of butter and cheese, the preservation of fruits and vegetables, and the production of candles and soap. With the large number of persons living on the farm, the supervision of laundry was a major weekly task. The never-ending housekeeping was a particular challenge due to the ash and smoke from the wood fires in every room, the farmyard dirt that was tracked in constantly, and the daily cleaning and wicking of the kerosene lanterns.

Amanda took charge of the management of the entire farm whenever Samuel was away on business. In her own right, she probably supervised all the work of the slaves except for their fieldwork. Despite the common perception that a white overseer was responsible for managing a plantation's slave workforce, his presence was relatively rare; even on plantations with a hundred or more slaves, only 30 percent of plantation owners employed overseers. Amanda was responsible for the health and welfare of the slaves as well as of her own family. She nursed the slaves when they were sick, she insured that the slaves had adequate clothing for both winter and summer, and she may have helped to sew the women's dresses and their household articles such as bedding. Amanda's labors were relatively pleasant compared to those of the family's slaves — but nevertheless, her work was never ending.

Among Amanda's most important tasks was the educational supervision of any children who were at home, either directly or through a tutor or governess. She was also expected to see that her children received the proper foundation in religious and moral precepts. Child mortality was so high that there was a critical emphasis on their spiritual readiness to be received by God. Likewise, the short life expectancy of women due to illness and childbearing gave the task of insuring their children's salvation through Christian faith an urgency that could not be deferred. In an 1841 treatise on the rearing of children, a female author wrote, "Do you ask, when shall we begin to teach our children religion? As soon as you see them. As soon as they are laid upon your breast. ... As the infant advances in strength, its religion should be love. ... Mother, if there is in your graveyard one grave shorter than your child, hasten to instruct him in religion."

Ironically, while Amanda's life was filled with responsibilities and toil, Lizzie's life until her marriage may have been one of ease and enjoyment. It was rare for the parents of girls in Lizzie's social station to focus on preparing their daughters to become plantation mistresses; instead, they educated their daughters in social graces and the liberal arts. Scarlett O'Hara's carefree existence, depicted so memorably in the early chapters of Gone with the Wind, was an accurate portrait of the lives of most planters' daughters. Adolescence, that golden period in which a woman of the Southern plantation society could sleep late, gossip with friends, attend parties, and flirt with potential beaus, was sweet but brief. Most young women of this class married early, as did Lizzie, who married James Tayloe at age seventeen.

Many years later, James wrote in his memoirs, "My wife was educated in Richmond Virginia at a French school and was often at White Sulfur [Sulpher] Springs." The Missouri planter families believed in the value of education for their daughters because it prepared them to be better mothers and because the moral training that they received would improve their communities. A number of female seminaries were opened in Missouri. Although they did not offer the Latin and Greek that male institutions provided, they did offer the girls an opportunity to study English, reading, writing, math, and the sciences. Although many of the female academies in central and western Missouri boarded young girls from the country, Samuel and Amanda chose instead to send their daughter east for her education.

It was not possible to determine the specific name of the "French school" that Lizzie attended in Richmond, for there were several schools of similar characteristics in Richmond during this period. Based on the still-existing Richmond school catalogs that list student names, most of the girls were from Virginia, but a significant minority were from other Southern states; in the years before the Civil War, a few even came from as far away as Canada or the New England states. The courses of study of these female academies were similar and were designed to produce young women of culture: English, modern languages, philosophy, music, drawing, decorative arts such as embroidery and painting, and a smattering of math and the sciences. Most of the boarding schools emphasized the practice of French during meals and leisure hours, hence James Tayloe's description of Lizzie's school as a "French school." The 1858 catalog of the Southern Female Institute, which was contemporary with Lizzie's school period, noted, "Most particular attention is given" to modern languages. "Two Parisian ladies, one of whom speaks very little English, reside in the family, and it is their special duty to converse habitually in French with the young ladies."

The moral development of Lizzie and her peers was a priority for the female seminaries. Their purpose, according to an official of the Union Theological Seminary, was to produce "intelligent and useful members of society, and fit [young women] for happiness here and hereafter, ... under the care of well educated men, whose high intellectual and moral attainments will qualify them to train and fit their interested charges for their responsible stations in future life." The 1858 pamphlet of the Southern Female Institute noted, "The boarders employ a portion of every Sunday in the study of the Bible, its Literature, and the Evidences of Christianity. Under proper restrictions, they attend such churches on Sunday morning as their parents or guardians prefer."

James Tayloe's reference that Lizzie was "often at White Sulfur Springs" speaks volumes about the family's social level and speaks to his pride that he was able to catch this eligible young woman for himself. The "White Sulphur" was the preeminent place for Southern families to meet and socialize during the all-important summer season. Because the members of the Southern planter society were isolated on their rural farms and scattered across several Southern states, a primary purpose of the season at White Sulphur Springs was for the young men and women of this class to meet, court, and engage for marriage. The season was filled with a delightful succession of dances, teas, riding parties, and carriage rides, which provided ample opportunity to meet and assess prospective spouses. An early twentieth-century Southern writer noted,

The life of the Southerner in the majority of instances was modeled after that of the English aristocracy. ... The members of the governing families of the South had intermarried and were largely inter-related throughout the Southern country. I would say that the ruling families of the South did not number more than four hundred, and these were bound together in many instances by ties of close relationship, by blood, and by marriage. ... So, if a member of [one of these families] came from under the shade of the hanging moss of South Carolina, from the cotton fields of middle Georgia, from the hemp lands of Missouri, or the corn and wheat plantations of Virginia, he was not a stranger, but was known and taken in to one or another of the circles of this great resort.


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Table of Contents

ONE. Missouri Roots,
TWO. Prairie Girlhood,
THREE. Wife and Mother,
FOUR. Governor,
FIVE. Wyoming Statesman,
SIX. Chautauqua Speaker,
SEVEN. National Campaigner,
EIGHT. DNC Women's Director,
NINE. Bureau Chief,
TEN. The Washington Years,

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