Ray, Dixy Lee (1914-1994)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/20/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 601

Dr. Dixy Lee Ray was a marine biologist, associate professor at the University of Washington, and director of Seattle's Pacific Science Center. In 1972 President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) appointed her to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which she chaired from 1973 to 1975. In 1976 she became the first woman to be elected governor of Washington. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Dixy Lee Ray First Citizen of 1973.

Early Life

Dixy Lee Ray was born September 3, 1914, in Tacoma. Her mother was Frances Adams Ray. Her father, Alvis Marion Ray, was a commercial printer. The second in a family of five girls, Dixy Lee quickly carved out a niche as the tomboy. Originally named Marguerite, family lore had it that Ray was often referred to ruefully as "the little dickens." The phrase is a gentle way to call someone a little devil. Dickens evolved to Dixy. Ray is said to have chosen her middle name in reference to a family ancestry to Robert E. Lee. Whatever the story, Dixy Lee Ray's original first name was a closely guarded secret during her years in the public spotlight. In 1930 she legally changed her name to Dixy Lee Ray.

The Ray family spent summers on rural Fox Island near Tacoma. This early exposure to nature was formative to Dixy Lee, who later credited the hours out of doors with her attraction to science. At age 12 she climbed Mount Rainier, the youngest girl on record to have done so at the time.

Ray attended Tacoma public schools, graduating from Stadium High School in 1932 with a high grade-point average and several scholarship offers. She received a B.A. in zoology from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1937 and a master's of science in zoology and a teaching certificate from Mills in 1938. (Her master's thesis was titled "A Comparative Study of the Life Habits of Some Species of Burrowing Eumalacostraca.") Ray received no financial help from her father, with whom she had a difficult relationship. She worked many jobs such as puppeteer, janitor, waitress, and housepainter to put herself through school. Ray later told her friend and biographer Louis Guzzo (1919-2013), "I missed a lot of sleep in those days, but never a class" (Guzzo, p. 30).

A Young Scientist

From 1938 to 1942 she taught science in public schools in Oakland. In 1942 she went to Stanford University as first a John Switzer fellow and then a Van Sicklen fellow. In 1945 she earned a doctorate in biological science from Stanford. In 1945 Ray became an instructor in zoology at the University of Washington. She was the only female faculty member in zoology at the time and for many years thereafter. In 1947 she became an assistant professor, and in 1957 an associate professor, a position she held until 1976. In 1952 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

In 1955 Ray was appointed to the Committee on Oceanography, a commission of the National Academy of Science. In 1960 she took a leave of absence from the University of Washington to serve on the National Science Foundation as Special Consultant in Biological Oceanography. While serving the Foundation, Ray wrote feasibility studies that resulted in the establishment of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Radio Astronomy Center. She testified before House and Senate hearings on science. Unlike many of her fellow scientists she had the ability to state scientific cases in lay terminology. Ray's evolving role was to be a bridge between the scientific community and the federal government.

Pacific Science Center

In 1963 Ray was appointed director of the then one-year-old Pacific Science Center. She had been a member of the science advisory board for the U.S. Science Exhibit, the forerunner of the Pacific Science Center. She was especially concerned with de-mystifying science to the general public, a controversial idea among scientists at the time.

As director, Ray raised money to fund the Center, and this brought her into contact with a broader swath of Seattleites than she had ever mixed with as a zoology professor. Dixy Lee Ray's hard work was credited with saving the Pacific Science Center. Jim Backstrom, who succeeded Ray as Director, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "It is hard to imagine anybody else who could persist under those conditions, the acute financial distress, the struggle to build reasons for the public to come. Her sheer stubborn persistence kept it alive until it could be rescued; she kept it from being squashed and washed away" (January 3, 1994).

Ray also hosted a weekly television series on Seattle station KCTS called "Animals of the Sea." She also continued to lecture at the University of Washington.

"Man" of the Year

In 1964, Ray led a scientific expedition aboard the ship Te Vega. The mission was a joint venture of the National Science Foundation and 24 nations. Ray led a team of graduate students in performing marine research in the Indian Ocean.

In 1967, the Seattle Maritime Society named Dixy Lee Ray its Maritime Man of the Year. Ray was the first woman to win the award, a trend she would continue to ride during the remainder of her life.

Atomic Energy

In 1972, President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) appointed Dixy Lee Ray to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission. Nixon's desire to appoint a woman scientist to the Committee from what was at the time a very limited pool of prominent women in the sciences overshadowed the fact that Ray's background was in marine biology, not nuclear physics. The Atomic Energy Commission deliberated for just 20 minutes before approving Ray's nomination, which was then unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In 1973 Ray became chairman of the Committee, a position she held until the Committee's disbandment in 1975.

Ray's stance was adamantly pro-nuclear. She consistently downplayed the risks of atomic radiation and urged construction of more atomic power plants. Breaking with previous AEC policy, she opened the organization's files on peaceful uses of the atom to nuclear-energy detractors such as Ralph Nader. Ray embraced nuclear energy because she felt that whereas fossil fuel supplies were limited, atomic energy was not. This pragmatic but unbending stance and Ray's consistent dismissal of any risks to the public or the environment maddened opponents of nuclear energy.

As Ray's political power increased her personal quirks began to surface in press reports of her work in Washington. Her choice of hosiery (white knee socks) was reported. Occasionally reports about her two dogs, a 100-pound Scottish deerhound named Ghillie and a miniature poodle named Jacques, who accompanied her to the AEC office, eclipsed reportage about her professional activities. Ray lived in a 28-foot motor home parked in rural Virginia and was chauffeured to the AEC offices in Germantown, Maryland, in a limousine.

On March 8, 1974, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors presented Dixy Lee Ray with the First Citizen of 1973 award at a banquet at the Olympic Hotel. The First Citizen award recognizes outstanding service to the Seattle community. Ray was the 35th person and the third woman to receive the award. Ray returned to Seattle from Washington, D.C., to accept the award and to listen to testimonials offered by her colleagues in science, education, community affairs, and government. Describing the event for The Seattle Times, Michael J. Parks quoted Ray as saying she considered the time in which she lived "exciting, stimulating and sometimes frustrating ... it is a privilege to be alive in a time of change and turbulence" (March 9, 1974). In addition to the distinctive First Citizen plaque and the wooden bowl carved by pioneer realtor J. W. Wheeler traditionally presented to First Citizen recipients, Ray was given a symbolic Kwakiutl headdress and a wooden mask carved by Kwakiutl tribe member Russell Jones.

More Honors

In 1975 President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) appointed Ray to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment, and Scientific Affairs. Ray resigned the post after only six months, complaining that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (b. 1923) ignored her advice. The Seattle Times reported, "Dr. Dixy Lee Ray told a Senate subcommittee yesterday she saw Secretary of State Henry Kissinger only once -- the day she was sworn in as an assistant secretary of state. She has resigned because she said she was cut out of policy decisions and could not get sufficient staff personnel to get her job done" (June 27, 1975).

Governor Ray

Dixy Lee Ray surprised many on March 15, 1976, when she announced her candidacy for Governor of Washington in the 1976 election. Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry "Scoop" Jackson were honorary chairmen of her campaign. Paul Boyd wrote in The Weekly, "The Magnuson-Jackson coattails are broad. The two heavyweights provided a needed legitimacy to Dr. Ray's candidacy" (November 11, 1976, p.9). Previously unaffiliated, Ray ran as a Democrat.

At the time Ray campaigned for Governor, the fact that she was a woman forced her opponents to rethink their usual political strategies. John Spellman told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I don't think anyone knew how to run that campaign (against a woman). We had a lot of debate ... could you attack, do you give offense?" (January 3, 1994). In this respect Dixy Lee Ray chipped out a completely new territory.

Ray beat Wes Uhlman (then mayor of Seattle) in the Democratic primary and King County Executive John Spellman in the general election. She was the second woman in the history of the country to be elected Governor without succeeding a husband. (Ella T. Grasso, elected Governor of Connecticut in 1974, was the first. A handful of other women succeeded their husbands in the gubernatorial seat.)

As the first resident of the Governor's Mansion without a First Lady, Ray hired her elder sister Marion R. Reid to serve as her secretary and official hostess. Reid convinced her sister to wear blouses instead of men's shirts and to abandon her trademark knee socks.

Upon taking office Ray tightened state purse strings and began an audit of state salaries and programs. She balanced the state budget and during her tenure as Governor oversaw the state's first full funding for basic education. She also earned a reputation as a friend of the Northwest aircraft industry.

Quotes and Dixy Quips

But public support for Ray soured as she announced her approval of allowing massive oil tankers to dock in Puget Sound (clashing on this point with Senator Warren Magnuson), her support for unrestrained growth and development, and her continued enthusiasm for atomic power. The growing group of Washingtonians who opposed her plastered their bumpers with stickers reading, "Nix on Dixy." She alienated many women who had voted her into office by her refusal to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. She also signed into law Washington Referendum 40, thereby abolishing the Washington State Women's Council (also called the Women's Commission). Ray quickly earned a reputation for quick anger when her plans were thwarted. Describing Ray's gubernatorial style in The Wall Street Journal, Joan Libman wrote, "She is iconoclastic, and she wastes no time in taking up the cudgels" (December 6, 1977).

Blair Butterworth, who ran Ray's gubernatorial campaign in 1976 and then ran the campaign that defeated her in 1980, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "She was quotable, both the medium and the message" (January 3, 1994). This quotability, combined with an adversarial relationship with the press, resulted in a wealth of Dixy-isms, quips, and sound bites that caught the public's attention, but ultimately undermined Ray's credibility. Her decision to discontinue the traditional early morning press conferences in Olympia angered the press corps. Complaining that the press misquoted her or quoted her remarks out of context, Ray initiated a series of Town Hall meetings directly with the public across the state. Her press secretary, F. Duayne Trecker, soon resigned.

Ray faced re-election alienated from many in her own party. Her pro-nuclear stance, especially, put her at odds with many Democrats. Her constant jousting with the press, outspokenness, and her unconventionality were less acceptable to the voters of 1980 than to those of 1976. Senator Jim McDermott (b. 1936) ran for governor and defeated her by a wide margin in the primary election. Republican John Spellman (b. 1926) then defeated McDermott in the general election.

Last Years

Ray's retirement years were devoted to her farm on Fox Island and to her animals. She was frequently in the news giving her opinion of current events. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted her as saying "she favors abolishing political parties and taking away voting rights from anyone who fails to vote in two consecutive elections" (May 12, 1984). On the first anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster on April 24-25, 1986, in the USSR (now Ukraine), an article by Joel Connelly in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was headlined "Dixy: Chernobyl accident 'was not a catastrophe' " (April 30, 1987). On August 23, 1989, another Seattle Post-Intelligencer article was titled "Keep Cool About Global Warming, Dixy Advises." She published two books detailing her views on environmentalism, Trashing the Planet (1990) and Environmental Overkill (1993).

Dixy Lee Ray was a highly idiosyncratic woman forced by the particular time in which she lived and held public office to break new ground. During the 1970s public understanding of women in leadership was still evolving. Ray was judged and often condemned for her personal style, begging the question of whether another politician identical in every way save gender would have fared differently. Ray remained, finally, the little dickens. That the little dickens was female codified both the press and the public reaction to everything she did.

During her lifetime she had received many awards and honors, including the Clapp Award in Marine Biology (1958), the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal for Service in Conservation (1973), the United Nations Peace Medal (1973), and the Francis Boyer Science Award (1974). She was awarded 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country.

Dixy Lee Ray died at her home on Fox Island on January 2, 1994.


Eric Pace, "Dixy Lee Ray, 79, Ex-Governor; Led Atomic Energy Commission," The New York Times, January 3, 1994; Rebecca Boren and Debera Carlton Harrell, "Former Governor Dixy Lee Ray Dies, A Pioneer Amidst Controversy," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 1994; Louis R. Guzzo, Is It True What They Say About Dixy? (Mercer Island, Washington: The Writing Works, Inc., 1980); "Dixy Ray" Biographical Resource Center Website accessed November 5, 2004 (http://www.galenet.group/com); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ray, Dixy Lee" (by Mildred Andrews), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 23, 2004); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Voters defeat Washington State Women's Commission on November 8, 1977" (by Priscilla Long), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 23, 2004); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Voters elect Dixy Lee Ray as first woman Governor of Washington on November 2, 1976" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 23, 2004); Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 162-64; "Realtors Name Dixy Lee Ray First Citizen of Seattle for '73," The Seattle Times, December 6, 1973; Louis R. Guzzo, "Dixy Lee Ray, Worthy 'First Citizen,' " Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 3, 1974; "First Citizen Fete Friday," The Seattle Times, March 3, 1974; Michael J. Parks, "Dr. Ray Honored As 'First Citizen,' " The Seattle Times, March 9, 1974; Parris Emery, America's Atomic Sweetheart: A Composite Biographical Profile of Washington's Maverick Lady Governor, Dixy Lee Ray (Seattle: Century, 1978); Sam Iker, "Changes in Dixyland," Time, November 5, 1973, pp. 98-100; Joan Libman, "Dixy Lee Ray's Style, Environmental Views Stir Washington State," The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 1977; Paul Boyd, "A Dixy Diary," The Weekly, November 10, 1976, p. 9; "Dixy: Pull Plug On Non-Voters," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 12, 1984, p. A-3; Joel Connelly, "Dixy: Chernobyl Accident 'Was Not a Catastrophe,' " Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 30, 1987, p. A-9; "Keep Cool About Global Warming, Dixy Advises," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 23, 1989, p. A-6; "Woman To Head Science Center," The Seattle Times, July 20, 1963; Cathy Neville. "Dixy Lee Ray No Bookish Recluse," The Seattle Times, December 14, 1967; "Dr. Ray Saw Her Boss Only Once -- When She Was Sworn In," The Seattle Times, June 27, 1975, p C-7; Richard S. Larsen, "McDermott Rides 'Anti-Dixy' Wave," The Seattle Times, September 17, 1980; Ross Anderson, "Dixy Lee Ray Makes Her Mark," The Seattle Times, September 21, 1980; Janice Braun, Special Collections Curator, F. W. Olin Library, Mills College, to Paula Becker, January 18, 2007.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject. It was corrected on May 31, 2005 and again on March 21, 2007.

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