Texas History Minute: Ma Ferguson, the first woman elected governor in Texas

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
Miriam A. Ferguson

She grew up in a time when women almost never attended college, almost never spoke out on the issues, and certainly never voted.  But one woman did all of them, and in the process, “Ma” Ferguson became one of the most unforgettable women in Texas political history. 

            Miriam A. Wallace was born in Bell County in 1875.  She was well-educated, attending Salado College and the Baylor Female College, among the very few colleges in the South that allowed women students at the time.  On New Year’s Eve, 1899, she married James Ferguson, a lawyer and banker living in Belton.  The couple had two daughters and were extremely devoted to one another.  

In 1914, her husband was elected governor.  Gov. Ferguson, had a stormy two-term reign and was impeached in 1917 over charges of misappropriation of funds regarding the University of Texas as well as embezzlement.  He maintained his innocence, and in spite of a ban on him holding office in the state, he ran three more times.  

            In 1924, he had his wife run for governor in his place.  Always the devoted wife, determined to uphold his honor, she agreed.  Campaigning on the theme of “getting two governors for the price of one,” as she put it, the contest soon became a heated contest between Ferguson and Judge Felix Robertson, the candidate of the Ku Klux Klan.  Klan forces in the 1920s attempted to seize control of the major political parties across the nation, Democratic and Republican alike. 

            The Fergusons and their allies, repelled by the violence and corruption the Klan brought with it, portrayed Miriam Ferguson, “Ma,” as the embodiment of traditional Texas values and motherhood.  The battle of “the bonnet versus the hood” captivated Texans, and she won the election easily. 

Miriam A. Ferguson

            She became the first woman elected governor in Texas History, and only the second in the nation, after Gov. Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming took office just a few days before Ferguson and served from 1925 to 1927. 

            Her husband was believed to have been responsible for most of her decisions.  The most important law passed was an anti-mask law aimed at the Klan Ferguson though was very forgiving and pardoned an astonishing 100 convicts per month.  Though critics charged that she and her husband accepted bribes for these pardons as well as highway contracts, no evidence ever emerged from these charges.  However, the rumors led to her defeat in her 1926 re-election bid and the eventual creation of a commission to oversee all pardon requests before they reached the governor. 

            Ferguson failed at another run in 1930 before winning again in 1932.  She pushed for attempts to control state spending during the cash-strapped years of the Great Depression.  However, attempts to consolidate agencies failed.  While she advocated old-age pensions, bank reforms, and other measures, the state legislature failed to make any significant progress, and the Fergusons found themselves embroiled in new political fights. 

She quietly stepped down in 1934 and stayed away from politics for the next few years.  In 1938, voters across the state signed petitions asking her to run for governor once again.  She resisted the “Draft Ma” movement, but accepted the call when a new draft movement spread in 1940.  She attempted to unseat Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel in the Democratic Primary, but in spite of the many criticisms of O’Daniel, Ferguson could not win the nomination.  

With this loss, the Fergusons stepped away from politics for good.  After her husband’s death in 1944, “Ma” Ferguson lived a quiet life of retirement in Austin until her passing in 1961 at age 86. 

Ken Bridges

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.