Did Texas Have a Female Governor in 1934?

Netflix’s new film about the lawmen who took down Bonnie & Clyde has some historic surprises.

It may not be well-known outside the Lone Star State, but Texas was home to the second woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state (the first being Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming, and only by a few days): Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson.

In The Highwaymen (2019), Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play ex-Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two men responsible for taking down outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May 1934. Kathy Bates plays a supporting role as Texas Governor Ma Ferguson, who disbanded the Texas Rangers and is portrayed as reluctantly sanctioning the manhunt.

Surely there wasn’t a female governor in the United States during 1930s, only a decade after women received the right to vote? There was!

Actually, Miriam A. Ferguson was first elected governor in 1924, after her husband, James Edward Ferguson, Jr., himself an ex-governor of Texas, was banned from holding public office after being convicted on corruption charges. “Ma” Ferguson ran as a surrogate for her husband, promising “Two governors for the price of one.”

Ironically, Texas women used their recent enfranchisement to vote against her and for the Republican reform candidate. She served one term in office before being defeated in the next election. In 1932, she ran again and won with 61% of the vote. She was seen as soft on crime, particularly when it came to Prohibition, and issued so many pardons Texans stripped their governor of the power to pardon.

Whether “Ma” Ferguson actually disbanded the Texas Ranger Division rests on something of a technicality. Upon entering office in 1932, 40 Rangers quit in protest, since her administration was widely seen as being as corrupt as her husband’s, and the rest were fired. The Rangers have since been a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

History is full of surprising and colorful characters. Kathy Bates is a great actress and she was perfect for the role of “Ma” Ferguson, a politician who has largely disappeared from public consciousness. I’m glad the creators of this Netflix film decided to include her in their dramatization of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. It added some much needed historical flavoring to the story.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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