Those of us who live in Texas are continually embarrassed by the state's politicians. Adding to that sad reputation, I'm sharing this article on our state's first woman governor, Ma Ferguson.
Miriam Amanda (Ma) Ferguson, first woman governor of Texas, daughter of Joseph L. and Eliza (Garrison) Wallace, was born in Bell County, Texas, on June 13, 1875. She attended Salado College and Baylor Female College at Belton. In 1899, at the age of twenty-four, she married James Edward Ferguson, also of Bell County. Mrs. Ferguson served as the first lady of Texas during the gubernatorial terms of her husband (1915–17), who was impeached during his second administration.
|Early photo of Miriam Wallace Ferguson|
When James Ferguson failed to get his name on the ballot in 1924, Miriam entered the race for the Texas governorship. Before announcing for office, she had devoted her energies almost exclusively to her husband and two daughters. This fact, and the combination of her first and middle initials, led her supporters to call her "Ma" Ferguson. She quickly assured Texans that if elected she would follow the advice of her husband and that Texas thus would gain "two governors for the price of one."
|Ma and Pa Ferguson|
Her campaign sought vindication for the Ferguson name, promised extensive cuts in state appropriations, condemned the Ku Klux Klan, and opposed passing new liquor legislation. After trailing the Klan-supported prohibitionist candidate, Felix D. Robertson, in the July primary, she easily defeated him in the August run-off to become the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. In November 1924 she handily defeated the Republican nominee, George C. Butte, a former dean of the University of Texas law school. Inaugurated fifteen days after Wyoming's Nellie Ross, Miriam Ferguson became the second woman governor in United States history.
Political strife and controversy characterized her first administration. Although she did fulfill a campaign promise to secure an antimask law against the Ku Klux Klan, the courts overturned it. State expenditures were slightly increased, despite a campaign pledge to cut the budget by $15 million. The focal point of discontent centered upon irregularities both in the granting of pardons and paroles and in the letting of road contracts by the state highway department.
Ma Ferguson pardoned an average of 100 convicts a month, and she and "Pa" were accused by critics of accepting bribes of land and cash payments. Critics also charged that the Ferguson-appointed state highway commission granted road contracts to Ferguson friends and political supporters in return for lucrative kickbacks. Though a threat to impeach Miriam Ferguson failed, these controversies helped Attorney General Daniel James Moody defeat Mrs. Ferguson for renomination in 1926 and win the governorship.
Miriam Ferguson did not seek office in 1928. However, after the Texas Supreme Court again rejected her husband's petition to place his name on the ballot in 1930, she entered the gubernatorial race. In the May primary she led Ross Sterling, who then defeated her in the August runoff. Her defeat proved fortuitous politically because Sterling, rather than she, was blamed by the voters when Texas began to feel the full impact of the Great Depression. In February 1932 she again declared for the governorship; she promised to lower taxes and cut state expenditures, and condemned alleged waste, graft, and political favoritism by the Sterling-controlled highway commission. After leading Sterling in the May primary by over 100,000 votes, Ma Ferguson narrowly won the Democratic nomination in the August primary. She then defeated the Republican nominee, Orville Bullington, in November to secure her second term as governor.
In the 1924 gubernatorial race in Texas, the Klan suffered a decisive setback. The hooded order campaigned actively for Judge Robertson. One of his opponents was Miriam A. Ferguson. Her husband, James E. Ferguson, was prohibited from running because he had been impeached as governor in 1917 and declared permanently ineligible to hold a state office. He remained the idol of the dirt farmers, the "boys at the forks of the creeks," and other rural voters. Mrs. Ferguson was his proxy. She based her campaign in part on a fight for the vindication of her husband at the hands of Texas voters and in part on opposition to the Klan.
No candidate received a majority in the first primary, and Robertson, who had a large plurality, and Mrs. Ferguson contended against each other in the runoff. In the offing was one of the most heated political campaigns in Texas history. The group supporting Mrs. Ferguson adopted as campaign slogans "Me for Ma, and I aint got a durn thing against Pa," "A bonnet and not a hood," and "Two governors for the price of one."
The Robertson camp countered with, "Not Ma for me. Too much Pa." Ferguson directed his wife's campaign and made the most of her political addresses. Throughout the state large numbers of politicians and voters flocked to Mrs. Ferguson's support in the second primary, not because they were for her, but because they were against Robertson, the Klan-backed candidate. Robertson was defeated in the second primary by nearly 100,000 votes—413,751 to 316,019. At the state Democratic convention in Austin on September 2–3, the Klan was given a merciless political drubbing. The convention inserted in its platform an anti-Klan plank that began: "The Democratic party emphatically condemns and denounces what is known as the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan as an un-democratic, un-Christian and un-American organization."
According to the New York Times, the November 4 election signified "the greatest political revolution that ever took place in Texas." Tens of thousands of rock-ribbed Democrats cast a ballot for a Republican candidate for the first time. Klansmen deserted wholesale to Butte, who was not in sympathy with the organization, as did a number of anti-Ferguson Democrats, outraged that Ferguson should return to power through his wife. Under the leadership of Tom Love they formed an association called the Good Government Democratic League of Texas, the purpose of which was to defeat the Fergusons. However, Butte was defeated by more than 127,000 votes—422,558 to 294,970. These developments signaled the demise of the Klan as a force in Texas politics.
"It was all over," recalled a former Klansman. "After Robertson was beaten the prominent men left the Klan. The Klan's standing went with them." By the end of 1924 Texas was no longer the number-one state in Klandom. The following year Ferguson persuaded the legislature to pass a bill making it unlawful for any secret society to allow its members to be masked or disguised in public.
Her second administration did not engender as much controversy as the first, despite dire predictions to the contrary by her political opponents. The fiscally conservative governor held the line on state expenditures and even advocated a state sales tax and corporate income tax, although the state legislature did not act on these proposals. Mrs. Ferguson continued her liberal pardoning and parole policies, but even that action did not stir as much controversy as in her first administration since every convict paroled or pardoned represented that much less fiscal strain on the state during the depression.
"Fergusonism," as the Fergusons' brand of populism was called, is still a controversial subject in Texas. As governor, she tackled some of the tougher issues of the day. Though a teetotaler like her husband, she aligned herself with the "wets" in the battle over prohibition and took a firm stand against the Ku Klux Klan. She has been described as a fiscal conservative, but also pushed for a state sales tax and corporate income tax.
Mrs. Ferguson's infamously generous granting of pardons was her way of relieving the overcrowded conditions in Texas prisons. During two non-consecutive terms in office, Mrs. Ferguson issued almost 4,000 pardons, many of them to free those convicted of violating prohibition laws. Though never proven, rumors persisted that pardons were available in exchange for cash payments to the governor’s husband. In 1936, voters passed an amendment to the state constitution stripping the governor of the power to issue pardons and granting that power to a politically independent Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
In 1934 the Fergusons temporarily retired from direct involvement in politics and also refused to seek office in 1936 and 1938. However, Ma Ferguson did declare for governor once again in 1940. Although sixty-five years old, she alleged that she could not resist a "popular draft" for the nomination and joined a field of prominent Democrats that included incumbent governor W. Lee O'Daniel. Ma's platform advocated a 25 percent cut in state appropriations, a gross-receipts tax of .5 percent to raise social security funds for the elderly, support for organized labor, and liberal funding for secondary and higher education. O'Daniel proved to be too popular to unseat, but the Ferguson name was still strong enough to poll more than 100,000 votes.
After her husband's death from a stroke in 1944, Miriam Ferguson retired to private life in Austin. She died of congestive heart failure at the age of eighty-six on June 25, 1961, and was buried alongside her husband in the State Cemetery in Austin. Ferguson Cut Off, between Hwy. 290 East and the old Manor Road, in Austin, Texas, is named after Ma Ferguson.
Photos from Google Commons
Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas Online