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.
Richards rose to the governorship with a come-from-behind victory over millionaire cowboy Clayton Williams in 1990. She cracked a half-century male grip on the governor's mansion and celebrated by holding up a T-shirt that showed the state Capitol and read: "A woman's place is in the dome."
In four years as governor, Richards championed what she called the "New Texas," appointing more women and more minorities to state posts than any of her predecessors.
She appointed the first black University of Texas regent; the first crime victim to join the state Criminal Justice Board; the first disabled person to serve on the human services board; and the first teacher to lead the State Board of Education. Under Richards, the fabled Texas Rangers pinned stars on their first black and female officers.
She polished Texas' image, courted movie producers, championed the North American Free Trade Agreement, oversaw an expansion of the state prison system, and presided over rising student achievement scores and plunging dropout rates.
She took time out to celebrate her 60th birthday by earning her motorcycle driver's license.
Throughout her years in office, her personal popularity remained high. One poll put it at more than 60 percent the year she lost to Bush.
"I may have lost the race," Richards said after the defeat. "But I don't think I lost the good feelings that people have about me in this state. That's tremendously reassuring to me."
Richards went on to give speeches, work as a commentator for CNN and serve as a senior adviser in the New York office of Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based consulting firm.
Richards grew up near Waco, married civil rights lawyer David Richards, volunteered in campaigns and raised four children. She and her husband later divorced.
In the early 1960s, she helped form the North Dallas Democratic Women, "basically to allow us to have something substantive to do; the regular Democratic Party and its organization was run by men who looked on women as little more than machine parts."
Richards served on the Travis County Commissioners Court in Austin for six years before jumping to a bigger arena in 1982. Her election as state treasurer made her the first woman elected statewide in nearly 50 years.
But politics took a toll: It helped break up her marriage. Public life also forced her to be remarkably candid about her 1980 treatment for alcoholism.
"I had seen the very bottom of life," she once recalled. "I was so afraid I wouldn't be funny anymore. I just knew that I would lose my zaniness and my sense of humor. But I didn't. Recovery turned out to be a wonderful thing."
The 1990 election was rough. Her Democratic primary opponent, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox, accused her of using illegal drugs. Williams, an oilman, banker and rancher, spent millions of his own money on the race she narrowly won.
After her unsuccessful re-election campaign against Bush, Richards said she never missed being in public office.
Asked once what she might have done differently had she known she was going to be a one-term governor, Richards grinned.
"Oh, I would probably have raised more hell."