Frances Jane Ross was born on 26 April 1869 at Rosebury farm, Otepopo, North Otago, New Zealand, one of six children of Dorathea Mee and her husband, Angus Ross. Her father came from Ross-shire, Scotland, and her mother from County Cavan, Ireland. To her parents and rural upbringing she owed her splendid health, her love of education, her staunch Presbyterian faith, and her happy extrovert outlook.
She was dux, in turn, of Otepopo School and the Normal School, Dunedin, and in 1886 was a foundation pupil of Girton College, which had been established by Caroline Freeman, the first woman student from the University of Otago to graduate. Girton College, unlike many other girls' schools, encouraged its pupils to pursue academic studies, and Frances Ross went on to Otago, graduating BA in 1890. In 1891 she returned to Girton as first assistant, eventually becoming co-principal. She gained her MA in 1900. In 1911 Freeman moved to Christchurch, where a second Girton College was operating, and Frances Ross became sole principal and owner of Dunedin's Girton College, a position she held until the school closed in late 1914.
That year the Presbytery of Dunedin established Columba College, a secondary school for both boarders and day girls, and appointed Frances Ross as principal. Presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in November 1914, Ross told those present that as the welfare of the emerging nation depended to a large extent upon the quality of its women, Columba would endeavour to prepare its girls for whatever career they chose to follow. The need for vocational training was stressed: 'it is for the girls of today to realise their own importance in the great scheme of things, and to begin to equip themselves while young for the work of their mature lives'. Columba would enrol girls of all denominations and endeavour to promote moral values, personal worth and high ideals of womanhood.
In her years as principal Frances Ross translated her somewhat idealistic and innovative programme into action. Whereas most church schools took a conservative view of girls' education, Columba built on the traditions of Girton College. High educational standards were set, while due attention was given to music, physical training, domestic science and, of course, religious instruction. The differing abilities and aspirations of the pupils were acknowledged and fostered. Ross expected a great deal from her girls and was not disappointed. Columba girls took prizes, scholarships and degrees at university and made their mark in a range of occupations.
As well as being responsible for the running of the school, Frances Ross taught some classes and shared with her pupils her love of English literature. She also promoted the building programme, overseeing the construction of a new wing in 1917–18 and the school assembly building, Constance Hall, in 1925. At her retirement function in 1930 many prominent Dunedin citizens paid tribute to her efforts for the school.
Instead of enjoying a leisurely retirement, Frances Ross embarked on voluntary work for the Young Women's Christian Association of New Zealand. She was a member of its Dunedin board from 1930 until 1944, except for a break in 1931–32 when she visited YWCA branches in Scotland, Ireland and the United States. She was Dunedin president (1935–38) and maintained close relations with overseas branches as chair (1938–43) of the Dunedin branch's World Fellowship Committee and as a World's YWCA Council member (1938–44). In 1944 she was made a life member of the Dunedin YWCA.
Whenever her services were urgently needed Ross returned to the workforce. In 1939 she was acting warden of St Margaret's College, a university hostel. In 1942 she was principal of the Presbyterian Women's Training Institute in Dunedin, and in 1943 and 1944 she was a relieving teacher at St Hilda's Collegiate School.
Throughout her life she was concerned to further the cause of women's education. She held office in the Otago University Women's Association and the Otago branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women. Both the Austral-Girton Club, revived by her in 1903, and the Columba College Old Girls' Association, founded in 1924, kept her as their president for many years.
Frances Ross never married, but this was not for lack of suitors. As a teacher and headmistress many of her sayings became proverbial, and she was slightly eccentric: in particular she was slightly superstitious about good and bad luck. Throughout her working life she spent little on herself, least of all on clothes. But out of her salary she helped her brothers on a poor farm, in depression years, with mortgage payments and the purchase of a motor-car. In addition, she materially assisted her two nephews (later Professor Angus Ross and District Court Judge Thomas Allen Ross) with their secondary and tertiary education. Without her aid they might well have remained on the farm.
Frances Ross died at Dunedin on 13 July 1950. She is remembered as a pioneer in women's education and an outstanding teacher who combined knowledge and dignity with a sense of fun.