In 1974, when Ella Tambussi Grasso ran for governor of Connecticut, she had not lost an election since she was first voted into the state’s General Assembly in 1952. Her winning streak was extended when the people of Connecticut chose her as the nation’s first woman to be elected governor in her own right—the capstone of a long and successful career dedicated to public service, effective government and the democratic process.
Ella Tambussi was born in Windsor Locks, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her father owned a bakery and her mother was a mill worker. A gifted student, she attended St. Mary’s School, won a scholarship to the Chaffee School and then attended Mount Holyoke College, where she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1940, majoring in economics and sociology. Two years later, she earned a Master’s degree, also from Mount Holyoke. She later added honorary degrees from Colgate University, University of Hartford, Trinity College and Smith College. In 1942, Ella Tambussi married a school principal, Thomas Grasso; they had two children.
Grasso joined the League of Women Voters in 1942, and one year later began working for the Connecticut Democratic Party as a speechwriter. In 1952, she was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly and served there until 1957, becoming in 1955 the first woman elected Floor Leader. From 1958 to 1970 she served as Connecticut's Secretary of the State, turning the office into a “people’s lobby” where ordinary citizens could air grievances or seek advice. During this period, Grasso became the first woman to chair the Democratic State Platform Committee, served as a member of the Platform Drafting Committee for the 1960 Democratic National Convention and served as co-chair of the Resolutions Committees for the 1964 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions. In 1970, she was elected to her first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. While in Congress she served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In 1974, Grasso re-entered state politics and, after a hard-fought campaign, was elected governor, defeating Republican Congressman Robert Steele by a margin of more than 200,000 votes. She was re-elected in 1978. In her first inaugural address, she promised a government that would be more responsive to the people, but would keep within the fiscal limits demanded by the times. Looking for ways to economize, she began with herself, returning to the state treasury a $7,000 raise she could not legally refuse. Over the course of her tenure as governor, Grasso’s leadership was tested in the face of fiscal problems, state layoffs and budget shortfalls. She endeared herself to her constituents when, during the great Blizzard of 1978, she stayed at the State Armory around the clock, directing emergency operations and making frequent television appearances. Her bold move of closing all roads and businesses in the state by official proclamation allowed emergency workers to perform essential services without worrying about stranded motorists, automobile accidents and other issues and allowed the state to get back up and running again in a few days time.
In 1980, Grasso was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ill-health led to her resignation in December of that year. She died in Hartford on February 5, 1981.
Admirers had speculated that she could be a future Vice President or Cabinet member, but Grasso’s loyalty remained with the state of Connecticut. Considered a liberal, old-style Democratic pro, Grasso was seen as a warm, motherly person who remembered her Italian roots and the needs of the working class. She paved the way for more women in Connecticut politics and set a wonderful example of what a public service-minded individual can accomplish.
Shortly after her death in 1981, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. To honor Governor Grasso's life, The Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame has created programs in her name to encourage civic engagement and public service in Connecticut students. From 2005 to 2009, the CWHF hosted the Ella Grasso Youth Action Conference and, in 2011, inaugurated the Ella T. Grasso Leadership in Action Grant Program.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.