From Mt. Rainier to the Governorship of Washington, Dixy Lee Ray Was a Climber

October 31, 2013


Dixy Lee Ray sits in a chair facing the camera.In our research on Dixy Lee Ray, the AAUW Achievement Award winner in 1975 and first woman governor of Washington state, we came across quite an array of newspaper clippings, quotes, and professional milestones. We also came to know the impressive story of a woman described as “unpolitical, unique, uncompromising.”

Ray, with a respectable number of firsts under her belt, went through life strong in purpose and conviction, brushing aside subtlety and diplomacy in favor of frankness. She was uninterested in the normative trappings of femininity and even more uninterested in pretending to care about them. On election night in 1976 when asked to explain her success she responded wryly, “It can’t be because I’m so pretty?”

This strength of character and generally politically incorrect frankness served Ray well in her professional life, if not especially well in politics. As Ray said, “We shouldn’t accept things just because somebody says so.” A breath of fresh air in a post-Watergate era United States, Ray, in 1977, was only the second woman governor in the United States who was not stepping in for a deceased husband. Ray bulldozed her way through her term as governor of Washington, never compromising her ideals and beliefs about what was best for the state.

Dixie Lee Ray's acceptance letter after receiving her AAUW Achievement Award.

Dixie Lee Ray’s acceptance letter after receiving her AAUW Achievement Award.

A competitive go-getter from childhood, Ray became the youngest girl to climb Mount Rainier (at the time) at age 12. After going to Mills College, she eventually earned her doctoral degree in marine biology from Stanford University. Ray joined the faculty at the University of Washington in the zoology department in 1945 and stayed on until 1976.

In 1963, Ray was appointed director of the Pacific Science Center, then in its first year of existence. She remained there for nine years, leaving in 1972 when President Richard Nixon appointed her chair of the Atomic Energy Commission — the first woman to hold that position. Ray was a big proponent of nuclear energy, often quoted saying, “A nuclear-power plant is infinitely safer than eating, because 300 people choke to death on food every year.” This, of course, is an example of her divisive and hardheaded manner, and one of the reasons she did not stay long in politics!

Support 125 More Years of Fellowships and Grants


Ray, though gruff and blustery, was also a bubbling and energetic woman who always rose to a challenge. She made all her “firsts” look easy. Along with the AAUW Achievement Award, Ray was also awarded the prestigious John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award for biology, received 20 honorary degrees, and was named one of the 100 distinguished Washington citizens selected to commemorate the state’s centennial in 1989. She was also named Maritime Man of the Year in 1967 by the Seattle Maritime Society after leading a scientific expedition aboard the ship Te Vega in 1964. AAUW is proud to be affiliated with such a trailblazer!

Lauren Byrnes By:   |   October 31, 2013

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.