Back to Results

GREENWAY, Isabella Selmes

GREENWAY, Isabella Selmes
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object


Isabella Greenway, a charismatic businesswoman, philanthropist, and politician, served as Arizona’s first woman in Congress. Elected to the House during the depths of the Great Depression, Representative Greenway used her experience and extensive political connections to bring economic relief to her suffering state.

Isabella Selmes was born on March 22, 1886, in Boone County, Kentucky, daughter of Tilden Russell Selmes, a lawyer, general counsel for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and sheep rancher, and Martha Macomb Flandrau Selmes. The family lived briefly in North Dakota, where Tilden Selmes established ranching operations. He also befriended Theodore Roosevelt who, from that day forward, took a special interest in the young Isabella. Eventually, Selmes moved his family to St. Paul, Minnesota. After his death in 1895, Martha Selmes moved to New York City with the adolescent Isabella to enroll her in the elite Miss Chapin’s School, where she made a lifelong friendship with Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt. In March 1905, Isabella Selmes was a bridesmaid at the marriage of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR).1 Weeks later, 19-year-old Isabella married Robert H. Munro Ferguson, a former member of Theodore Roosevelt’s military unit from the Spanish-American War, with little notice. They raised two children: Martha and Robert. Ferguson, 19 years Isabella’s senior, developed tuberculosis, and the family moved in 1909 to a ranch home in the dry climate of the Burro Mountains near Silver City, New Mexico. Robert Ferguson died in 1922. A year later, Isabella married another former “Rough Rider,” John Campbell Greenway, a decorated veteran of World War I, mining engineer, and copper magnate. The Greenways raised one child, John, and with Isabella’s two other children, settled in the mining town of Ajo, Arizona, which they helped develop alongside their Cornelia surface copper mine. John Greenway died in 1927, and Isabella relocated to Tucson with her children. She established the Arizona Hut, a woodcraft factory that employed wounded veterans. She later built a successful hotel resort, the Arizona Inn, and owned a cattle ranch and Gilpin Airlines, based in Los Angeles, California.

Greenway was a peculiar blend of eastern establishment aristocracy and frontierswoman: cultured and charming, yet rugged and self-reliant. She relished meeting people and was a seemingly inexhaustible campaigner and student of the issues: “I always felt the open door of human contacts was more important than an open book.”2 Greenway also held firm convictions about the wisdom and resiliency of average Americans and believed political leaders needed to be forthright in discussing national issues. “I believe they are not only anxious to know the truth and will welcome it but that they have the courage to face it, whatever it is.”3 Western influences, she once observed, gave her something she called a “liberty of living”—a desire and an opportunity to know the wide spectrum of experiences from emotion and aesthetics to intellectual pursuits. “The West is so much less afraid of the things we may have to do and the changes we may have to make in order to save the values in American life that are worth saving,” Greenway remarked, “that sometimes I think this courage of the West to dare new adventures—even if all that are proposed are not all strictly wise adventures—may be our final salvation.”4

Isabella Greenway’s political career began during the First World War. In 1918 she chaired the Women’s Land Army of New Mexico, which tended to agricultural tasks traditionally performed by men then serving in the military. Her marriage to the widely revered John Greenway opened up a constellation of political connections. As tribute to her husband’s memory, state Democratic elders elected Isabella Greenway to the Democratic National Committee in 1928. Most expected she would accept it as a ceremonial honor. Instead, she treated it as a serious full-time job.5 That year Greenway campaigned for Al Smith’s presidential bid. She did the same for her longtime friend Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, as the only woman among Roosevelt’s state leaders. To recognize Greenway’s part in delivering Arizona’s delegation to Roosevelt at the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, party leaders chose her to second FDR’s nomination. Greenway was particularly close to Eleanor Roosevelt, whose children knew her as “Aunt Isabella.” Once, when Eleanor campaigned in Los Angeles for her husband, Isabella Greenway flew on half an hour’s notice to visit her friend for the evening, packing only her toothbrush in her briefcase. The two stayed up late into the night talking politics. “We’ve done lots of mad things together,” Eleanor Roosevelt recalled.6 Theirs was a genuine friendship that weathered Isabella’s eventual political conflicts with FDR.7

When Arizona’s Representative At-Large, Lewis Williams Douglas, resigned in March 1933 to become director of the Bureau of the Budget, Greenway ran for his seat. Her platform included support for veterans’ benefits and the implementation of a copper tariff to revive Arizona’s flagging mining industry. On the same day in August that Arizonans voted 3 to 1 to repeal Prohibition, Greenway overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary.8 The nomination was tantamount to election. In the October 3, 1933, special election, Greenway triumphed with 73 percent of the vote over Socialist candidate D. E. Sumpter and GOP opponent, H. B. Wilkinson.9 She dismissed accusations during and after the campaign that her viability as a candidate depended on her ties to Roosevelt. “A great deal has been said about my being a friend of the Roosevelts,” she observed. “I did not ask for votes on the basis of friendship but on the basis I was qualified to do the work. And it is on that basis that I am getting the job done.”10 In November 1934, Greenway won election to a second term, defeating Republican Hoval A. Smith and two third-party candidates with 68 percent of the vote.11

Sworn in and seated on January 3, 1934, Greenway was a persuasive and quickly successful advocate for New Deal programs to help her 450,000 constituents who suffered from an unemployment rate in excess of 25 percent. Greenway was concerned mostly with improving the lives of workers and industrial laborers. Her chief priorities were veterans’ relief, training and jobs for unemployed copper miners, and the development of the several flood-control projects. “Whatever happens, I must succeed for Arizona,” she confided to a friend.12 Ten days after being elected, she met with Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, who also served as director of the Public Works Administration. As she began to make her case for much-needed federal money for her state, Ickes told her: “Mrs. Greenway, my time is very valuable. Can you compress all that Arizona wants onto one page?”13 She replied, “Mr. Secretary, Arizona would never forgive me if I could get all it wanted onto one page.” She left the meeting with Ickes agreeing to fund three major projects that would employ more than 9,000 Arizonans—including the development of a large irrigation system on the Verde River and the construction of a post office in Phoenix. “I know we’re right,” Greenway said, “when we weigh projects in terms of human beings first and dollars second.”14 She also went to work on the press, telling the Washington Post, “The situation is desperate. Our one industry, copper mining, is closed.”15 She plied her colleagues for information too. One Capitol observer noted her elevator habits: “She never gets on here without two other Representatives. And you know what they’re doing? Answering questions: and she can ask them fast—all about different laws.”16

During her two terms in Congress, Greenway served on three committees important to her Arizona constituency: Public Lands; Irrigation and Reclamation; and Indian Affairs. Given her statewide district, each assignment gave Congresswoman Greenway a powerful post from which to tend to Arizona’s needs.17 In June 1934, she offered a bill to amend the Cotton Control Act (Bankhead Act), which had established national quotas to regulate cotton production. She also submitted several measures to transfer Veterans Administration lands to the Interior Department for the benefit of the Yavapai tribe, to prevent soil erosion, and to improve public grazing lands. She also supported a measure to use public relief funds to construct homes for elderly pensioners and to employ residents of the District of Columbia. Greenway introduced legislation to expand Veterans’ Administration facilities in Tucson and Whipple, Arizona, and to extend economic assistance to veterans who settled on homesteads. She broadly supported New Deal legislation, though she believed that revenue to pay for those programs should be raised through taxes on individual income rather than property.18

Greenway demonstrated her political independence by opposing two significant pieces of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. She broke with FDR over the Economy Act of 1933, which sought to cut veterans’ pensions, rejecting World War I servicemen’s call for a $2 billion bonus in benefits. Roosevelt maintained that he needed the money for his economic recovery programs. Greenway wanted to move the bonus bill beyond its “political football status” and sided with veterans, arguing that it would amount to an economic stimulus in its own right. The House passed a grant of additional money for veterans, but the Senate rejected the measure; it eventually passed during Greenway’s second term. She also supported the concept of old-age pensions. “Self-reliance is the cornerstone upon which every nation must build, if it is to succeed,” Greenway said on the House Floor. “To my mind, self-reliance means the use of human capacity, coupled with natural resources, in such a manner as to insure the liberty of living for all people.”19 But she opposed the provisions of the 1935 Social Security Act, sweeping legislation which eventually passed Congress and instituted unemployment insurance, pensions, and other social welfare programs. Greenway believed the legislation would be impossible to implement; “sustaining employment through artificial channels” required the government to tax businesses, which would further hamper economic recovery. “I do not believe anybody in Congress thinks that this country can continue to carry millions of people on welfare and not eventually run on the rocks,” Greenway declared.20

On March 22, 1936, her fiftieth birthday, Greenway announced her decision to retire from the House. Not only did she wish to leave Washington politics, but despite being considered the front-runner for the Arizona governorship in 1934, she precluded any further public service.21 She cited the need to spend more time with her family: her son John was a young teenager. Her biographer surmised family responsibilities and sheer exhaustion from congressional travel were decisive factors in her retirement.22 Greenway expressed pride in having “been allied with the courageous experiments of this administration, many of which I feel will be continued on their merits.”23 Still, some observers perceived that her rift with the White House—first apparent in the veterans’ bill—had widened since 1933.24

Greenway gave tacit confirmation of the break with President Roosevelt by actively campaigning for the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell L. Willkie, as chair of the Arizona chapter of Democrats for Willkie. In 1939 Greenway married Harry O. King, a former National Recovery Administration manager for the copper industry. She also went on to chair the American Women’s Volunteer Service during World War II, a national group dedicated to providing civil defense training to women. Later, she participated in international cultural exchange programs. Following a long illness, Greenway died in Tucson, on December 18, 1953.


1"Victory of Mrs. Greenway Cheers First Lady of Land," 5 October 1933, Washington Post: 5.

2"Mrs. Greenway Tackles Work Enthusiastically," 16 March 1934, Washington Post: 14.

3Duncan Aikman, "Mrs. Greenway Charts Her Own Course," 21 April 1935, New York Times: SM9.

4Aikman, "Mrs. Greenway Charts Her Own Course."

5Bernice Cosulich, "A Congresswoman Out of the West," 22 October 1933, New York Times: XX2.

6"Victory of Mrs. Greenway to Add Sixth Name to 'Feminine Bloc,'" 12 August 1933, Washington Post: 4; Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2 (New York: Viking, 1999): 73.

7Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: 313–314.

8Kristie Miller, Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2004): 192–194; "Roosevelt's Friend Chosen," 10 August 1933, Washington Post: 10.

9Michael Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 498.

10Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 105.

11Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920to Present.”

12Kristie Miller, "Greenway, Isabella," American National Biography 9 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 552–553. A variant appears in Cosulich, "A Congresswoman Out of the West."

13Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 104. Ickes's diaries do not record the encounter, nor do any of his biographies.

14Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 35.

15"Mrs. Greenway Here, Eager for Job in Congress," 11 October 1933, Washington Post: 10.

16"Mrs. Greenway Tackles Work Enthusiastically."

17Her Irrigation and Reclamation assignment was, according to one study, a moderately powerful post for the era. Political scientist Charles Stewart ranks it the 11th most attractive committee during a span of 70 years from the Gilded Age to the post–World War II reorganization of Congress. See Charles Stewart III, "Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947, "American Journal of Political Science 36 (No. 4, November 1992): 835–856. Public Lands ranked in the bottom 10 of about 30 committees in continual existence during that era, but it was uniquely important to Greenway since the federal government owned large tracts of Arizona. Likewise, Indian Affairs was a middling committee on Stewart's scale, but Arizona contained so many Native American tribal reservations that it was an important assignment to Congresswoman Greenway.

18"Mrs. Greenway Advocates Action on New Deal Bills," 26 January 1935, Washington Post: 12.

19Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 1st sess. (13 April 1935): 5604–5605.

20Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 2nd sess. (30 April 1936): 6480–6481.

21"Mrs. Roosevelt's Girlhood Chum To Leave Public Life," 24 March 1936, Christian Science Monitor: 4.

22Miller, Isabella Greenway: 228–230.

23"Mrs. Greenway Will Quit House," 23 March 1936, New York Times: 21.

24Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: 225–226.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

[ Top ]

External Research Collections

Arizona Historical Society

Tucson, AZ
Papers: 1860-1953, 117 linear feet. The papers of Isabella Greenway include state and national political material covering her years in the U.S. Congress, personal correspondence, and business papers relating to the Arizona Inn in Tucson. An inventory is available in the repository.

The Dinsmore Homestead Foundation

Burlington, KY
Microfilm: The materials are copies of papers at the Arizona Historical Society. The Dinsmore Homestead also has paintings of and by Isabella Greenway, as well as of her family.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Hyde Park, NY
Papers: In the Roosevelt Family Papers, ca. 1686-1959, 19 linear feet. Correspondents include Isabella Greenway. The collection is partially restricted. A series description ad folder list is available in the repository.

U.S. Capitol
Office of the Architect of the Capitol Manuscript Collection

Washington, DC
Papers: February 1930-July 1932. Correspondence and other papers relating to placement of statue of her husband in Statuary Hall.
[ Top ]

Bibliography / Further Reading

"Isabella Selmes Greenway" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Miller, Kristie. Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman. Tucson, Ariz: The University of Arizona Press, 2004.

[ Top ]

Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Indian Affairs
  • House Committee - Irrigation and Reclamation
  • House Committee - Public Lands
[ Top ]