Ella T. Grasso Papers: an Online Exhibit

Grasso, who earned both B.A. and M.A. degrees from Mount Holyoke College became the first woman governor of Connecticut and the first woman governor elected in her own right. She began her political career working for the Connecticut State Department of Labor in 1942. In 1952 she was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives of the Connecticut General Assembly. From 1958-1971 she served as Connecticut Secretary of State, and from 1956-1968 she was chair of the Connecticut Democratic State Platform Committee. She co-chaired the Resolutions Committee for the 1966 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions. In 1970 and 1972 she was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Connecticut’s 6th District. While in Congress she served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In 1974 Grasso was elected as Governor of Connecticut. She resigned from office on December 31, 1980 due to illness. On October 9, 1981 she received the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan.

Biography

Ella Grasso was born on May 10, 1919 in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, to James and Maria Oliva Tambussi. Both Italian immigrants, her father owned and operated the Windsor Locks Bakery, and her mother was a mill worker. Grasso went to St. Mary’s School in Windsor, Ct and the Chaffee School in Windsor Locks, Ct. She entered Mount Holyoke College in 1936 and graduated magna cum laude with an B.A. degree in 1940. While an undergraduate she majored in economics and sociology, minored in history and political science, and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key her junior year. For the next two years she was a part-time assistant and teacher for the Department of Economics and Sociology, and in 1942 she received her M.A. degree in economics and sociology from Mount Holyoke. Later in her career, she was awarded honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Mount Holyoke College, Colgate University, Smith College, University of Hartford, and Trinity College. She married Thomas A. Grasso, a school principal, in 1942, and they had two children.

Grasso began her political career working for the Connecticut State Department of Labor in 1942. In 1943 she became the Assistant Connecticut State Director of Research for the War Manpower Commission and served until 1946. In 1952 Grasso was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives of the Connecticut General Assembly; she was re-elected in 1954. From 1958-1971 she served as Connecticut Secretary of State, and from 1956-1968 she was chair of the Connecticut Democratic State Platform Committee. From 1956-1958 she was Democratic Committeewoman. She co-chaired the Resolutions Committee for the 1966 and 1968 Democratic National Conventions.

In 1970 and 1972 she was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Connecticut’s 6th District. While in Congress she served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. In 1974 Grasso was elected as Governor of Connecticut, becoming the first woman governor of Connecticut and the first woman governor elected in her own right. She was re-elected in 1978, but resigned from office on December 31, 1980 due to illness. After a ten-month battle with cancer, Grasso died on February 5, 1981 at the age of sixty-one in Hartford, Ct.


Professor Everett Hawkins and other MHC students

With Professor Everett Hawkins and other MHC students in an Economics class, ca. 1937.


MHC President David Truman

With MHC President David Truman at Founders Day 1975.

International Affairs

Grasso was involved in perpetuating the debate in Congress on whether the United States should pull its military forces out of Vietnam. Serving on the Veteran Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, she was especially concerned about how a sudden pullout or a continued involvement would affect the veteran community. Click on the following images to read more on her stance on the Vietnam War:

Letter to Honorable Thomas J. Meskill, December 3, 1973

Correspondence with a constituent, November 1973

Veteran Affairs

Grasso was a member of the Veteran Affairs Committee. She worked on legislation to improve education and health benefits for veterans, such as the Veterans Education Assistance Act, which she cosponsored and helped draft. Click on the following images to see examples of her correspondence with veterans:

Congressional Record, House of Representatives, July 20, 1972

Correspondence with Harold L. Scott, Quartermaster, Department Historian of Connecticut, Veteran of World War I

Richard Nixon's Impeachment Hearings

Grasso served in Congress during the Watergate scandal and Nixon's impeachment hearings. Click on the images bellow to read Grasso’s form letters of May and August 1974, sent to critics of Nixon’s prosecution in reply to their correspondence to her. She later sponsored a bill to require elected officials to donate their public papers to the government or educational institutions as to make government more transparent.

Correspondence with Harold L. Scott, Quartermaster, Department Historian of Connecticut, Veteran of World War I

Constituent Correspondence December 1973

Energy Crisis

During the energy crisis of the early 1970s caused by the Arab members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo, Grasso received extensive constituent correspondence on the dimensions of the crisis in New England, and especially in Connecticut. Click on the following images to read examples of the petition and Grasso's correspondence on the subject.

"My Limits" Petition of 1973

Constituent Correspondence December 1973

Family Planning and Control

Coming from a devout Catholic community, Ella Grasso opposed the Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court, but accepted it as “the law of the land.” Her papers contain extensive correspondence with constituents and organizations reflecting the dimensions of the abortion debate in the early 1970s. Click on the images bellow for two examples:

A pro-choice letter from Catholics for a Free Choice

A form letter by Grasso stating her position on Roe v. Wade

Women in Politics

Grasso believed that gender was not an obstacle in her political career. In a speech given at Mount Holyoke College she said that the time spent at her alma mater taught her that gender is not a “pressing issue in [her] life.” She never took the radical feminist stance of the 1970s, but won the female vote with her policies on education and health. When Grasso won the governorship in 1974, Newsweek magazine ran a series of articles on women politicians. In 1993, Grasso was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, along with Mount Holyoke's founder, Mary Lyon. Click on the following images to read a newspaper article from 1955, and her MHC Commencement speech:

The Woman's Place is in the House, The Hartford Courant Magazine, February 20, 1955. Copyright held by the Hartford Courant, 2006. All rights reserved.

Commencement Address, Mount Holyoke College 1975

Education

Click on the images bellow to see a letter from Shirley Chisholm, Representative of New York, on the problem of the “pushout” of minority students in desegregated schools and a Congressional bill Grasso sponsored establishing a summer youth program:

A letter to Grasso from Shirley Chisholm, May 15, 1974.

92nd Congress, First Session, House Resolution 11402

Press Release, June 26, 1974

New England

Grasso worked on legislation concerning the residents of Connecticut such as grain shortages, Amtrak route changes, the preservation of the Housatonic River Valley and the Shepaug River, funding for social programs and schools. Click on the images bellow to view campaign materials she used in Connecticut in 1958, 1972 and 1974:

Campaign brochure for the 1958 Secretary of the State election.

Ella Grasso Works For You, October 25, 1972

Why Ella Grasso?, 1974

Other Collections

These are other political collections at the Mount Holyoke College Archives that might be of interest:

Sources Used

  • Grasso, Ella T. Papers 1919-1981. Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. South Hadley, MA.
  • Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Susan Ware, editor, Stacy Braukman, assistant editor. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Curated by Ralitsa Donkova, Political Papers Processing Assistant.