DIXY LEE RAY was an American scientist and politician born on this date, who served as the 17th Governor of the U.S. state of Washington (d: 1994). Variously described as idiosyncratic, and “ridiculously smart,” she was the state’s first female governor and was in office during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. She was a supporter of atomic energy.

A graduate of Mills College and Stanford University, where she earned a doctorate in biology, Ray became an associate professor at the University of Washington in 1957. She was chief scientist aboard the schooner SS Te Vega during the International Indian Ocean Expedition. Under her guidance, the nearly bankrupt Pacific Science Center was transformed from a traditional, exhibit-oriented museum to an interactive learning center, and returned to solvency.

In 1973, Ray was appointed chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) by President Richard Nixon. Under her leadership, research and development was separated from safety programs, and Milton Shaw, the head of the powerful reactor development division, was removed. She was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs by President Gerald Ford in 1975, but resigned six months later, complaining about lack of input into department decision making.

Ray ran for election as Governor of Washington as a Democrat in 1976. She won the election despite her blunt, sometimes confrontational, style. As governor, she approved allowing supertankers to dock in Puget Sound, championed support for unrestrained growth and development, and continued to express enthusiasm for atomic energy. In April 1980 she declared a state of emergency as a result of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. She retired after losing her re-election bid for Democratic nomination later that year.

Ray displayed a blunt, sometimes confrontational, style on the campaign trail, for which she would later become known. During a visit with the Dorian Society, a Seattle gay rights group, she was asked by one member if she had met any gay federal employees and if they ever felt under pressure. Ray responded, “I don’t know any – you can’t tell by looking at them,” drawing applause from attendees. In another instance, she declared Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Shelby Scates, who had deluged her with tough questions on the campaign trail, would “learn what the words persona non grata really mean” after her election.

Ray narrowly won the Democratic nomination over Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman, having spent almost no money on her campaign, having no experience in running for elected office, and having little support from the state’s political class. Despite opposition from all major newspapers and predictions from pundits that the state was not ready “for an unmarried woman who gave herself a chainsaw for Christmas,” Ray went on to win the general election with a victory over King County Executive John D. Spellman, 53%–44%. On election night, asked by a reporter to explain her surprise victory, she offered, “it can’t be because I’m so pretty?”

Dixy Lee Ray died in January 1994, at her home. Later, controversy erupted after it emerged employees of the Pierce County medical examiner’s office had kept autopsy photos of Ray as souvenirs!

The subject of Dixy Lee Ray’s sexual orientation was carefully avoided in public discussion both during, and after, her life. While there were many rumors regarding her sexuality, the specific word “lesbian” was never used to describe her and many people have dismissed those rumors as speculation born of Ray’s tomboy characteristics and unmarried status, rather than informed assessment.