Ella Tambussi Grasso made headlines in 1974 when she was elected as Connecticut’s first female governor. Her victory also made U.S. history because Grasso was the first woman governor to be elected in her own right, rather than as the successor of an incumbent husband.
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Grasso graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 1940. Two years later, she earned a master’s degree in economics and sociology from Mount Holyoke. Convinced by her educational experiences that she should enter public service, Grasso worked with Connecticut’s War Manpower Commission during World War II. In 1952 and 1954, she was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives of the Connecticut General Assembly. From 1958 to 1971, Grasso served three terms as Connecticut secretary of state—longer than any secretary of the state since 1835.
In 1970, Grasso was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Connecticut’s 6th District. She served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Frustrated with a system that left new legislators virtually powerless, Grasso chose to enter Connecticut’s 1974 gubernatorial race. After her historic election, she devoted much of her effort to open government, abolition of county government, and reform of the court systems.
Grasso was reelected as governor in 1978 but resigned on December 31, 1980 due to illness. She died two months later and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—from President Ronald Reagan in October 1981.