Miriam “Ma” Ferguson: The First Lady Governor of Texas

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Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson, known as Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (June 13, 1875 – June 25, 1961), was an American politician who served two terms as a governor of Texas. Just five years after American women won the right to vote, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson became the first female governor of Texas. She missed the title of being the first female governor in the United States by two weeks, as Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming won that title. Ross was selected during the same election to fulfill her late husband’s term. 

Early Life

Miriam Amanda Wallace was born in Bell County, Texas. She received her early education from a prep school in the same area. Then, she studied at Baylor Female College, which later became University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. At the age of 24, she married James, a lawyer, at her father’s farm near Belton, Texas. They had two daughters named Ouida and Dorrace. 

Miriam was nicknamed Ma because of her initials (M.A.), and because of the fact that her husband was known as “Pa” Ferguson. 

Gubernatorial Campaign

Miriam wasn’t considering a career in politics when she enrolled in college in the 1890s. In 1899, she married James Edward Ferguson with a plan to settle down and raise a family. 

In 1915, Miriam became the first lady of Texas when her husband took office as a governor until 1917. Late in his first term, James was accused of mishandling state finances, but he managed to win a second term. But this time, he was investigated by State Attorney General Dan Moody for actions taken against the University of Texas. James “Jim” Ferguson was impeached for misapplication of public funds and embezzlement. The Texas house prepared 21 charges against him, but the Senate convicted him on ten charges, and declared ineligible to hold state office in Texas again. Jim spent the next seven years fighting to have his ban lifted, but it was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in 1924. 

With her husband sidelined, Miriam stunned Texans when she announced she would be running for governor in 1924. The couple was forthright about Miriam’s candidacy, being a means to return Jim to the governor’s mansion. Promising “two governors for the price of one,” Miriam took the nickname “Ma” during the campaign and urged voters to restore “Pa’s” honor by voting for her. 

During her campaign, she made it clear that she was a puppet candidate for her husband. Her speeches at rallies consisted of introducing Jim and letting him have the platform. One common slogan during her campaign was “Me for Ma, and I Ain’t Got a Durned Thing Against Pa.” According to Houston Chronicle, “There was never a question in anyone’s mind as to who was really running things when Ma was governor.”

Due to the widespread corruption during her husband’s term, thousands of voters crossed party lines in the election to vote for the Republican candidate, George C. Butte, a prominent lawyer and a University of Texas dean. Republicans usually get around 11,000 to 30,000 votes for governor, but Butte won nearly 300,000 votes – most of them from women and suffragists. But since Texas has a Democratic stronghold, Ma received 59% of the votes compared to George’s 41%. Still, George Butte emerged as the strongest Republican gubernatorial nominee in the state since Reconstruction. 

First Term as Governor

In 1924, Ma Ferguson became Texas’ first elected female chief executive. She became the second female state governor in the United States, and the first to be elected in a general election. 

Her matronly image had a huge appeal in the rural and small-town areas in Texas, though Ma herself disliked it. She ran on an anti-Ku Klux Klan (KKK) platform, and promised a better management of state finances. She adopted Jim’s anti-prohibitionist stance on her campaign, though she personally favored restrictions on alcohol sales. 

Her first term saw a few successes. Over the two years, she failed to realize her campaign goals of increasing funding for education and highways and reducing wasteful spending. She also supported and signed an anti-mask law aimed at the KKK only to see it overturned by the courts. She was also attacked for her extensive use of power to grant paroles and pardons. 

In 1926, state attorney general Dan Moody ran against her in a run-off election. Moody had investigated her husband for embezzlement and recovered $1 million for Texans. Ma was defeated in the Democratic primary, and Moody went on to become the then-youngest governor of Texas at the age of 33. Suffragist activism helped Moody, as women rallied behind and campaigned for him. 

Second Term as Governor

Ma lost again in the 1930 primary, but the Fergusons kept a strong political base in Texas, enabling her to win a second term as governor in 1932. She narrowly won the Democratic nomination over incumbent Ross S. Sterling, then defeated Republican Orville Bullington in the general election. It was the year of Democratic successes as Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as President of the United States. 

She took office in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, and Texas was nearing bankruptcy. Her second term as governor was less controversial than her first. It was rumored that state highway contracts only went to companies that advertised in the Ferguson’s newspaper, the Ferguson Forum. She also issued almost 4,000 pardons of prisoners, and she and her husband were accused of accepting bribes of land and cash payments. A House committee investigated these rumors, but no charges were ever filed. 

In 1936, voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that strips the governor of power to issue pardons. That power was given instead to a politically independent Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. 

Because of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments were forced to downsize. The Texas Rangers https://texashappens.com/texas-rangers-history-the-original-texas-law-enforcement/ did not escape these cuts and saw the core of commissioned officers reduced to 45 people. The situation worsened for the Rangers when they became politically involved in 1932, when they publicly supported Sterling in his re-election campaign against Ma. So when Ma took office in 1933, she discharged all serving Rangers.

The force also saw funds and salary cuts, which were slashed by the Texas Legislature, so the number even got further reduced to 32 men. This resulted to Texas becoming a safe hideout for many Depression-era gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Raymond Hamilton. Many unqualified Rangers were hastily appointed due to the increasing criminality in the state, but the move was proved ineffective. 

In 1934, Ma summoned Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger, to lead the posse that tracked down and killed Bonnie and Clyde. The success of the Rangers in stopping the notorious led to the foundation of a new agency called the Texas Department of Public Safety, a department that merged the Texas Rangers with Texas Highway Patrol. 

Ma signed into law the Texas House Bill 194 in 1933, which was helped establish the University of Houston as a four-year institution. The governor was described as a fiscal conservative, but she also pushed for sales tax and corporate income tax. 

Post-Governorship

Except for an unsuccessful campaign to replace Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel in 1940,  the Fergusons remained retired from public office in 1935. Her political life was over, but her place in the history of Texas remained secure. Sixty years would pass before Texas would elect a second female governor, Ann Richards. 

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