A family spokesman says Richards died at home surrounded by her family. Richards was found to have esophageal cancer in March and underwent chemotherapy treatments.
The silver-haired, silver-tongued Richards said she entered politics to help others — especially women and minorities who were often ignored by Texas' male-dominated establishment.
"I did not want my tombstone to read, 'She kept a really clean house.' I think I'd like them to remember me by saying, 'She opened government to everyone,"' Richards said shortly before leaving office in January 1995.
She was governor for one term, losing her re-election bid to Republican George W. Bush, a loss she later said she mourned for "maybe five seconds" before going on to campaign in dozens of states for other Democratic candidates.
She grabbed the national spotlight with her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she was the Texas state treasurer, winning cheers as she told delegates that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, "only backwards and in high heels."
Richards won even more applause and sealed her partisan reputation with a blast at George H. Bush, a fellow Texan who was vice president at the time: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Four years later, she was chairwoman of the Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton for president.