Society in 1924 expected women to stay at home, run the household, raise the children, and follow the lead of their husbands. In that atmosphere, Miriam A. Ferguson became the first female governor of Texas. She ran her campaign while maintaining that she was just a little
homemaker, and that when she was elected, her husband would be running the show. She used a two-pronged approach that appealed to newly franchised women and to men who continued to expect wives to remain in the background. She told women’s groups that she was running for governor to do what any wife and mother would do to restore her family’s good name. “Enemies,” she said had conspired against her husband, James Edward Ferguson, the first governor in Texas to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Before male audiences she played the retiring wife, deferring to her husband who winked and nodded at the farmers and small business people who were reveling in the idea of turning the tables on the politicians that had declared Jim Ferguson ineligible to ever serve as governor. When a man asked Jim what he thought of women’s suffrage, Miriam kept a straight face when her husband delighted the male audience by saying, “If those women want to suffer, I say let them suffer!”
Miriam played down her background as the daughter of a wealthy Bell County family; a well-educated woman who had attended Baylor Female College before she married Jim Ferguson. A cultured and reserved woman, she felt the campaign slogan: “Me for Ma and I Ain’t Got a Durned Thing Against Pa,” didn’t suit her dignity, but she did not complain because it fit the role she was playing. Calling her “Ma” got started after a reporter for the Houston Press wrote campaign stories in which he referred to Miriam as M.A. Ferguson. Before long, “M.A.” became “Ma.” The campaign song, “Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet,” was another part of the image that Miriam endured because she and her husband understood how to make her more appealing to an electorate who believed women belonged in the kitchen. She told voters that, if elected, she would follow the advice of her husband and Texas would get “two governors for the price of one.”
She often delighted audiences by announcing that Jim would make the speech, and then she would sit down. Those who knew her, especially her two daughters, claimed that she was anything but retiring. They said she was the strong one in the family, enforcing the rules, and Jim was the quite, pushover.
The couple met after Miriam’s father died and her mother employed a young lawyer, James Edward Ferguson, to settle the estate. Jim Ferguson, the son of a Methodist preacher, was from the other side of the tracks, and he felt fortunate after a long pursuit to have finally won the reluctant Miriam.
When James Ferguson ran for governor as an anti-prohibitionist Democrat in 1914, Miriam remained silent despite her strong disapproval of drinking (No alcohol was ever served in the governor’s mansion, and she did not allow swearing or card playing.) During his second term, when he was impeached and convicted of ten charges, including misapplication of public funds and receiving $156,000 from an unnamed source, she continued to keep her silence.
Although Miriam was a teetotaler, she followed her husband’s policies and supported the “wets” in the fight against prohibition. She campaigned against the Ku Klux Klan that was gaining influence across the South. After her election she got an anti-mask bill passed, which was aimed at the KKK, only to have it thrown out as unconstitutional. Despite trouncing, her Republican rival, or perhaps because of it, the rumors of wrongdoing plagued her two-year term as governor.
The Fergusons were obsessed with the plight of prisoners, even going as a family to visit jails. Miriam Ferguson pardoned an average of 100 convicts a month (over 4,000 during her two non-consecutive terms), claiming many of them had only violated prohibition laws. Her fiscal conservatism led many to believe that her liberal acts of freeing prisoners were meant to relieve the cost of housing them in the penitentiary. Critics claimed that prisoners paid Jim Ferguson for their pardons and paroles and that Miriam should be impeached. No proof was ever presented. The accusations that she and “Pa” were accepting bribes from prisoners and that the Fergusons received lucrative kickbacks in exchange for state highway contracts allowed Attorney General Daniel Moody to beat Miriam Ferguson in the election of 1926.
When the Texas Supreme Court refused to allow Jim Ferguson to run for governor in 1930, Miriam Ferguson stepped forward, only to be defeated. Again in 1932, after voters had experienced the full impact of the Great Depression, Miriam Ferguson won her second term by blaming then-Governor Ross Sterling for the state’s woes. She promised to lower taxes and cut state expenditures, condemning Sterling for waste, graft, and political favoritism—many of the vices for which she was blamed in her first term.
The second time around, Governor Miriam Ferguson tried unsuccessfully to get a state sales tax and corporate income tax. She continued her liberal policy of pardons and paroles and did not suffer the attacks of her first term. She made one last run for governor in 1940, polling more than 100,000 votes, only to lose to W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
Miriam Ferguson listed the accomplishments of her administration as taxing gasoline for highway improvements and taxing tobacco for school financing. She signed a law establishing the University of Houston as a four-year institution and was most proud of a more strenuous bootlegging law. In her bias against alcohol, she had even demanded that Amon C. Carter, nationally known civic booster and founder/publisher of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, resign as chair of the Board of Directors of Texas Tech because he was seen drinking liquor (“drunk as a biled owl) at the Texas-Texas A&M football game. He did not resign.
After all the years of being accused of getting rich at the public trough, financial troubles in 1935 caused the Fergusons to lose their Bell County ranch.
Governor James Ferguson suffered a stroke and died in 1944. Governor Miriam Ferguson, who remains a controversial member of the brand of populism known as “Fergusonism,” died of heart failure on June 25, 1961.