This week, Kathy Hochul was sworn in as the first female governor of New York State after Andrew Cuomo’s resignation. To mark the occasion, the Center for Women’s History is taking a look at some of the milestones in the history of women governors. Just as women have only just begun to crack the glass ceiling of executive leadership at the federal level, women have been struggling to gain political power at the state level over the past century. Hochul is only the 45th woman to have served in this integral role.
The first woman to serve as a governor in the United States was Nellie Tayloe Ross (D), who served from 1925 to 1927 as Governor of Wyoming—which was also the first state to pass women’s suffrage. Ross won in a special election that was held after her husband, Governor William B. Ross, died of appendicitis. Despite cultural norms that limited women’s public roles, she won by 8,000 votes. While Ross lost the subsequent election of 1926, she continued to make a name for herself in national politics, moving to Washington, D.C., to become the director of the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Committee. She made history again in 1933 by becoming the first woman to serve as director of the U.S. Mint. She was named to the position by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served for the next 20 years.
Several women who served as governors following Ross also filled their deceased husbands’ gubernatorial seats, including Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (D-TX), who was elected just weeks after Ross, and Lurleen Wallace (D-AL). “Widow’s succession,” as this is sometimes called, has a long history in federal politics as well, and was one of the only paths to political power open to women during the early- to mid-20th century. Yet, as historian Katherine Parkin has explained, this position reflected and reinforced gender inequalities, as male politicians assumed the women would be pliable—“easy pawns” to further their deceased husbands’ and political parties’ agenda. They were also “largely criticized in public discourse, dismissed as illegitimate” and “undemocratic[ally] and unfair[ly]” seated. Instead of reflecting real change in the political order, Parkin finds that “most widowed women were relegated to a symbolic place in politics, denied an identity as politicians.”
The first woman to be elected governor in her own right was Ella Grasso (D-CT). The daughter of Italian immigrants and a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, Grasso began her career in public services as a researcher for Connecticut’s war manpower commision during the Second World War. She joined the League of Women Voters, and in 1952 successfully ran for a seat in the state legislature; by 1955, she was floor leader in the State House. She held office as the Secretary of State of Connecticut from 1958 to 1970, when she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives despite her opponent’s attack on her liberal record as he labelled her “Spender-Ella.” She took her seat in Congress alongside a new class that included other women, including Bella Abzug (D-NY) and Lousie Day Hicks (D-MA). Despite their commonalities (Grasso joked to the press that “We’re all fat, we’re all middle-aged, and we spend most of our time together talking about our children”), the differences in their politics highlights the ideological diversity of women in the public service. Grasso took a moderate stance on the feminist issues that Abzug championed—such as reproductive rights and child care—and Hicks led Boston’s fight against school desegregation. Grasso moved back to state-level politics in 1975 when she was elected governor and reelected in 1978—both times competing against Republican members of Congress. Her term was cut short, however, in 1980 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she passed away about a month after her resignation took effect.
Although women of color began winning seats in the federal legislature in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 2011 that the first two non-white women took office as governor. Nikki Haley (R), the daughter of Indian immigrants, served as the Governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, when President Donald Trump nominated her for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Susana Martinez (R), of Mexican descent, served as Governor of New Mexico from 2011 to 2019. She was succeeded by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, the second Latina to be elected governor. No Black or Native American women have yet served as governor in the the U.S., though Georgia’s Stacey Abrams (D) came close to winning the 2018 gubernatorial race with a margin of just 1.4 percent of the vote.
Like Haley, several women have resigned from their governorships to take on national leadership positions. Janet Napolitano (D) served as Governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009, when she resigned to become U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Kathleen Sebelius (D) served as Governor of Kansas from 2003 to 2009 before becoming U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. And most recently, Gina Raimondo (D) resigned after serving six years as Governor of Rhode Island to become Commerce Secretary in the Biden Administration.
Despite these leaps for women in state politics, some, like Hochul, have only broken their states’ glass ceilings because of men’s foibles. (Hochul was serving as New York’s lieutenant governor when Cuomo was forced to resign in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.) In fact, out of the 45 women to have served as governor, only 30 were elected in their own right, although not all of the 15 other women assumed office because of their predecessors’ scandals. Hochul’s rise in our current moment of reckoning with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace speaks to the significance of the #MeToo movement, but also the barriers women still face in politics even a century after suffrage. As Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, put it in a recent interview, representation is crucial to gender equality; in surveys of voters, the Foundation found that “If you ask them to picture a governor, they have an imagination barrier when it comes to thinking about women serving in those roles.” As historians Leandra Zarnow and Stacie Taranto have convincingly argued in their edited collection Suffrage at 100: Women in Politics since 1920, an “enduring male political citizenship ideal” persists in American culture that has shaped this predicament. With 19 states that yet to have a woman serving at the helm as governor, we still have much farther to go to reach gender parity in state-level politics.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History