Born to Italian immigrants in 1919, Ella Rosa Giovanna Oliva Tambussi grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood of first and second-generation Americans in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Her parents, determined to invest in a better future for their daughter, saved up enough money to send Ella to the prestigious Chaffee School in Windsor. Afterwards, she earned both an B.A. and M.A. from Mount Holyoke College, where the all-female, service-oriented college community inspired her to pursue a career of public and political service.
After marrying schoolteacher Thomas Grasso in 1942, Ella Grasso wrote speeches for the Connecticut Democratic Party while raising her two children at home; several years later, she successfully ran as a state representative from Windsor Locks and began her slow but steady ascendancy toward the state’s highest political office. After serving as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State and then in Congress as a U.S. Representative, Grasso successfully defeated Robert Steele Jr. in 1974 to become Connecticut’s first woman governor — and the first woman in the United States to successfully run for governor “in her own right” (i.e., the first woman governor who was not preceded in office by her husband).
Ella Grasso was also Connecticut’s first governor of Italian descent — a trait she later said had a much larger impact on her than her status as a female politician. During her first term as governor, Grasso said, “All my friends in the women’s movement get angry at me for saying this, but I never thought that being a woman gave me any special political problems. It was only when my friends from the foreign press, in New York, kept coming here and writing about me as a woman candidate that I began to think I was doing something unusual.”
Grasso inherited an daunting state deficit upon assuming the governor’s office, which required her to make a series of highly unpopular austerity decisions amidst the stagnant American economy of the 1970s. Her popularity rebounded, however, during the Blizzard of 1978 which crippled the state for days. During the storm, Grasso trudged to the State Armory in Hartford on foot after her car broke down and assumed command of the state’s response team for the next three days — a heroic tale with great political optics that resonated well with the state’s beleaguered voters. She handily won re-election to the governor’s office in 1978, but health issues forced her to resign two years later. In early 1981, only months after she resigned, Ella Grasso died from ovarian cancer. In honor of her pioneering political accomplishments, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A national glass ceiling shattered, on this day in Connecticut history.
“Ella Giovanna Oliva (Tambussi) Grasso: Governor of Connecticut, 1975-1980,” Museum of Connecticut History
Mary Muller, “America’s First Woman Governor: Ella Grasso, 1919-1981,” connecticuthistory.org
Jon E. Purmont, “The Education of Ella Grasso,” Connecticut Explored