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Texas History 101

As governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson pardoned as many as one hundred people a month, but what’s really interesting is how she got to be the first female elected to that office.

By May 2006Comments

If you know a little about Texas history, then you know that Miriam “Ma” Ferguson was the first female governor of Texas. Her time in office was, shall we say, pretty uneventful—the interesting story, really, is how she got there.

Miriam Amanda Wallace was born in Bell County in 1875. She attended Salado College and Baylor Female College at Belton before marrying James Ferguson at the age of 24. They eventually had two daughters, and Miriam focused her time on raising her children and creating a home for her family.

Things began to change when James decided to run for governor and won the 1914 election. Two years later he was reelected for a second term, though problems soon arose. James was unhappy with certain faculty members at the University of Texas and requested that the board of regents remove them. When the board refused, a quarrel ensued and James denied the university of almost all state funding. An impeachment trial quickly began with the Senate voting to impeach James on nine counts, including misapplication of public funds. James became the first governor to be impeached in Texas, and he was barred from ever holding a public office in the state again.

James was not deterred. He tried to get on the ballot in the 1924 election, but he was unsuccessful. Enter Miriam. James decided to put her in the race in his stead. She touted anti-Klan and anti-prohibition stances, just as her husband had, and she had a catchy campaign slogan: “Two governors for the price of one.” Ma, as she was called (because of her former position as a homemaker and also because it was the combination of the first letter of her first and middle names), won the race and became not only the first female governor in Texas but also the first elected female governor in the nation (Nellie Ross, of Wyoming, was inaugurated before Miriam, so Ross became the first female governor in the United States).

As governor, Miriam pardoned as many as one hundred people a month and banned the wearing of masks in public, an attempt to halt Klan activity that the courts later overturned. There were rumors of corruption, but no charges were ever filed. At the end of her term, two years later, Miriam never made it past the primaries, losing to Attorney General Daniel Moody. She ran a third time in 1930—the courts had rejected James’s latest request to run—but lost. In 1932 she ran a fourth time and succeeded in defeating Republican candidate Orville Bullington. From 1932 to 1934, Miriam’s campaign promise of reducing taxes never materialized, though she did continue her trend of granting a high rate of pardons. Miriam quietly left office following her second term only to show up in 1940 in an attempt to unseat Governor Lee O’Daniel. Her unsuccessful campaign marked the end of her public service days. After James died, in 1944, Miriam led a private life in Austin until her death, in 1961.

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