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  • Ella Tambussi Grasso: Political Pioneer

    by Leonardo Solimine

    "I'm having trouble managing the mansion. What I need is a wife."
    Ella T. Grasso

    Any examination of the history of American women in politics invariably includes the name of Ella T. Grasso. In 1974, as an energy crisis loomed and debates raged on about a war halfway across the world, she would write her name in the history books by becoming the first Governor of a U.S. State. Setting her apart, however, is the fact that Ella Grasso won on her own merits, and was not simply succeeding a deceased husband or acting as his surrogate. For the past 30 years, Ella Grasso has rightly been regarded as a trailblazer and continues to serves as a model to politicians like Geraldine Ferrara and Hillary Clinton.

    She was born on May 10, 1919, in Windsor Locks, Connecticut to Italian immigrant parents, James and Maria Oliva Tambussi,who named their daughter, Ella Giovanna Oliva. Her father owned and operated the Windsor Locks Bakery, and her mother was a mill worker. By all accounts, Ella enjoyed a happy childhood, maintaining many interests including membership in the Girl Scouts of America.

    She attended St. Mary's School in Windsor, CT and then the nearby Chaffee School. Upon graduation from Chaffee in 1936, she entered Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Four years later, she graduated magna cum laude with an Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in economics and sociology with a double minor in history and political science. Her academic accomplishments were many, and she earned a Phi Beta Kappa key her junior year. Yet schoolwork was not enough to keep Ella busy. During her junior and senior years at Mount Holyoke, she held positions as a part-time assistant and teacher for the Department of Economics and Sociology.

    The year 1942 was an important one for Ella on many levels. Mount Holyoke awarded her with a Masters of Arts degree in economics and sociology. But the bigger news was her marriage to Thomas Grasso, a school principal, and they would eventually have two children, Susanne and James.

    That same year would initiate Ella's longtime life of public service as she began new position at the Connecticut State Department of Labor. A year later, she became the Assistant Connecticut State Director of Research for the War Manpower Commission and served until 1946. In 1952, Grasso won election to the Connecticut House of Representatives, and served until 1957. She became first woman to be elected Floor Leader of the House in 1955. By 1958 she was elected Secretary of the State of Connecticut and was re-elected in 1962 and 1966. She was the first woman to chair the Democratic State Platform Committee and served from 1956 to 1968. She served as a member of the Platform Drafting Committee for the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and was co-chairperson for the Resolutions Committee for the Democratic National Conventions of 1964 and 1968. In 1970 she was elected as a Democratic representative to the 92nd Congress, and won reelection in 1972.

    In 1974, Grasso chose not to for reelection to Congress, instead opting to become Connecticut's next Governor. When she won the election in a landslide, the rumpled, salty-tongued daughter of Italian immigrants won to become America's first woman Governor. Her victory helped to establish the abilities of female politicians, and she became the first in a line of strong women elected to top offices in the state. She began her first term in 1975 and was elected to a second term in 1978.

    Ella Grasso understood that gender could not be 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 opted not to take the radical feminist stance so common during the 1970s; she chose to win the female vote with her policies on education and health. Upon winning the Connecticut governorship in 1974, Newsweek magazine - inspired by her victory and political acumen - ran a series of articles on women politicians.

    Sadly, on December 31, 1980, Governor Grasso resigned her office due to illness. She passed away several weeks later on February 5, 1981, at the age of 61, from ovarian cancer. Her accomplishments, however, remained intact and the memories of her fellow politicians and constituents. Later that year, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and said, "Long before the women's movement had gained prominence, Ella Grasso had already begun the long, hard ascent to distinction as an elected public servant. A fond wife and mother, she proved that it is possible to reconcile a full family life with a long and eventful political career…[she] won the respect of fellow citizens of both parties. Tireless in the pursuit of duty and courageous in the face of illness, Ella Grasso has earned the admiration of all Americans as a legislator, a governor and a woman of outstanding character and achievement."

    She is remembered for bringing the state of Connecticut out of debt and for creating an "open government," which gave ordinary citizens easier access to public records. Many citizens still speak reverentially of her actions during the Blizzard of 1978, when a nor'easter dumped over two feet of snow on the state. They recall with gratitude how she personally organized a massive relief effort even after the state lost all electricity for three days.

    Governor William O'Neill, who succeeded Grasso, said soon after her passing, "She will never be replaced for she is irreplaceable. Nor will she ever be forgotten." It would be wise to always remember those who came before us, to acknowledge their courage in the face of criticism and illness. We must never overlook the difficult path pioneers like Ella T. Grasso chose to take. In many ways, it is not unlike that struggles shared by many Italians who have striven to achieve great things in this country.

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