Ma Ferguson—Texas’ First Female Governor B S P I K E  G I L L E S P I E

On January 22, 1925, an old twin-

six Packard pulled up to the Gov-

ernor’s Mansion in Austin. The driver

triumphantly proclaimed to her pas-

sengers—her husband and daughter—

“Well, we have returned!”

     And then Miriam Amanda “Ma”

Ferguson, one-time Bell County belle,

moved back into the estate she had



enough for her husband. He won

reelection to a second two-year term.

Then it began to unravel for the Fergu-

sons, with accusations flying that

they’d lavishly and illegally spent state

funds on such items as personal gro-

ceries and even a ukulele.


     When she and Jim moved back to

the Capitol, Ma placed two desks side

by side so that her husband could

guide her in her work (or, as many

speculated, so he could operate her

“puppet strings”).

     Although it’s true that Jim would

write up some papers in pencil so she

could later copy over them in ink, Ma

grew more confident in her governing

skills. She passed an unmasking law to

called home from 1914 to 1917. Back

then she’d been the governor’s spouse,

but now the tables were turned. Ma

Ferguson, the first woman governor of

the Lone Star State, was the one

returning to the mansion with a first

spouse in tow.

Jim “Pa” Ferguson had been

impeached during his second

term as governor, disqualifying

him from holding the position

again. But no such rule applied

to his wife. So Pa, a perpetual

schemer, decided Ma would run

in his place.

Her lack of political knowledge

worked oddly in her favor. On the

campaign trail, she and Jim would

squelch the Ku Klux Klan.

     Ma also took a shining to granting

pardons—she granted over 2,000 dur-

ing her first 20 months. There were

grumblings that Jim was taking

kickbacks for these many pardons.

For the purpose of scandal distrac-

tion, Ma declared January 1926

“Laugh Month in Texas,” saying

“a cheerful happy outlook is the best

antidote for gloom.”

     Ma lost a bid for reelection in

1930. But phoenixes that they

were, the Fergusons again rose from

the ashes. In 1932, Ma ran against Ross

“Fat Boy” Sterling in the Democratic

primary, won her party’s nomination,

and defeated Republican Orville

both step on a platform only to have

Ma announce that her man would

be doing the talking for her. Then

he would explain, “You’ll get two

governors for the price of one.

I’ll tell her what to sign and

what not to sign.”

    Miriam was born in 1875, eight

Jim was impeached, and they

departed in shame. Jim’s bank, left in

the hands of an incompetent manager,

had failed, and Miriam’s inheritance

was gone. Suddenly the family was dis-

placed and near penniless. They moved

to Bosque County and started produc-

ing butter and eggs to make ends meet.

Bullington to reclaim the governor’s

office. She kept right on signing pardons,

a practice that was less frowned upon

the second time around, since doing so

lessened the state’s budget obligations,

a major concern in those Depression


    In 1940, at age 65, Ma tossed her hat

 miles outside of Belton, the privileged

child of Joseph Wallace and Eliza Gar-

rison Wallace. Spoiled by her parents

and her nurse, she grew up with an

unwavering air of confidence. She

attended Salado College and Baylor

Female College.

     Jim Ferguson relentlessly pursued

her when she moved back home in

1897. They married on December 31,

1899, the last day of the last month of

the last year of the century. Jim

became a successful banker in Temple.

     Ever ambitious, Jim ran for gover-

nor and won in 1914. Though the

women of Austin regarded Ma with

suspicion and thought her unneces-

sarily standoffish, things went well



20  Texas Co-op Power * July 2004

Then, in 1924, came Jim’s lightbulb

moment when he announced Ma

would be running for governor. Initially

displeased, she grew to like the

idea, hoping a win would vindicate

the family’s name.

     Despite her genteel upbringing and

good education, Ma was presented to

the public as a good old country gal.

She posed for pictures amidst her

chickens and up against fence posts.

Once she posed wearing a borrowed

sunbonnet. The image was so strong

that the bonnet became a symbol for

her campaign. She even agreed to be

called “Ma”—a nickname Pa gave her

to add to the folksy image—though it

was nothing she would have picked

for herself.

 into the ring one more time. She didn’t

win but she garnered 100,000 votes in

the primary. Outliving her husband by

17 years, Miriam died of heart failure in

June 1961. She was buried next to Jim

in the State Cemetery.

The Bell County Museum in

Belton houses the Miriam A. Ferguson

collection. Researchers are welcome

by appointment. Although Ferguson

materials are scattered throughout the

museum, at this time no exhibit is

devoted entirely to her. (254) 933-5243.

      Belton and Temple are in Bell

County. Portions of the county are

served by Bartlett, Belfalls and McLen-

nan County electric cooperatives.

     Spike Gillespie, who lives in Austin,

is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.

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