In the distance dark clouds loomed and I could only hope they stayed away until I was able to pay my respects to one of the most important female figures in Connecticut – and American – history. I was in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, a town that sits just north of Hartford on the western bank of the Connecticut River. Originally a part of Windsor, the town broke away with the development of the Enfield Canal, which allowed boats to pass the Enfield Falls of the Connecticut River and continue their journey upstream.
Although I knew of the falls, they were not what brought me to St. Mary’s Cemetery, which stretches out along Spring Street in Windsor Locks. I drove slowly along, holding up traffic, as I searched the entrance closest to the grave I sought. My mother finally announced we were at the correct entrance and I carefully pulled through the gates and onto the sacred grounds. I only drove a couple of rows before seeing the grave on the right side of the roadway.
Getting out, I walked the very short distance to the tombstone of Ella and Thomas Grasso. Attached to the front of the large stone was a plaque announcing this was the resting place of the 83rd Governor of Connecticut. Under normal circumstances, the grave of a governor would have been something I would have skipped over on my journeys, but it was the announcement beneath her name on the plaque that brought me here to pay my respects: “First woman governor in / the United States / elected in her own right / served from January 8, 1975 – December 31, 1980.”
Born May 10, 1919 in Windsor Locks, Ella Tambussi was the daughter of Italian immigrants. She attended Mount Holyoke College, graduating in 1940. In 1942, Ella graduated with a Master’s degree, also from Mount Holyoke, and the same year married Thomas Grasso. While these two events were important ones, a third event happened in 1942 that would change her life forever: Ella joined the League of Women Voters. By the following year she was writing speeches for the Connecticut Democratic Party.
In 1952, Grasso was elected Representative to the Connecticut General Assembly where she served until 1957. She had the honor in 1955 to become the first woman elected Floor Leader in the Connecticut House of Representatives.
From 1958 to 1970 Grasso served as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State. Under her direction, the office was opened so citizens could discuss issues with her. While serving as the Secretary of State she set many firsts. She was the first woman to chair the Democratic State Platform Committee, served as a member of the Platform Drafting Committee (the 1960 Democratic National Convention) and co-chaired the Democratic Resolutions Committee (the 1964 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions).
Grasso was elected to her first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970. While in Congress she served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In 1974, Grasso left the federal level of politics and campaigned for governor of Connecticut and was elected, defeating Republican Congressman Robert Steele. With her election, Grasso became the first woman elected governor in her own right; she would be was re-elected in 1978. As part of her campaign, she promised a state government which would be more responsive to the people, but would stay within budget. One of her first actions was to return to the state treasury the $7,000 raise she had received. Although she was not allowed to legally refuse it, she was allowed to return it into the state treasury.
The Blizzard of 1978 would prove to citizens how loyal Grasso was to her people and her state. Throughout the blizzard, Grasso stayed at the State Armory directing emergency operations. As the blizzard raged, she made the decision to close down the entire state of Connecticut. Grasso closed all roads and businesses by official proclamation, forcing citizens to stay inside and allowing emergency workers to perform essential services without having to worry about unnecessary vehicles being on the roads. The state of Connecticut was up and running within three days.
In March 1980, Grasso was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and in December of the same year she resigned from office. She died less than two months later on February 5, 1981. Shortly after her passing, Ella posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan.
Ella overcame the sexist mentality of the time to succeed in reaching her goals. Throughout her political career she never forgot who she was and where she came from — she remained true to her people, the citizens who elected her to office. She never stopped working to improve the lives of those within her state – not just the rich, but also the working class, minorities, and women.
Note: Ella was “elected as the first female governor in her own right.” Curious to know exactly what this phrasing meant, I did a little more research and discovered, Ella was not the first female governor elected. Ella was the fourth female governor in the history of the United States. The phrase “In her own right” means that she was not the widow of nor the wife of a former governor – she was elected as governor through her own actions and campaigns without relying upon the name of her husband to be elected.
The first female governor elected was Nellie Ross of Wyoming. Nellie was the widow of Governor William Ross who died in office. She won a special election and was elected governor, serving from 1925 to 1927. The second female governor was Miriam Ferguson of Texas who ran after her husband, Governor James Ferguson was impeached. She would be elected in two non-sequential terms. serving 1925-1927 and then reelected and served 1933-1935. The third female governor was Lurleen Wallace of Alabama, who was the first wife of former governor, George Wallace. She would only serve for fifteen months before passing from cancer, filling the office from 1967 until her death the following year.