Pioneering Woman

Kristie Miller's biography of Arizona's first congresswoman is an impressively researched work

The best medicine for the ennui of modern life is to read about someone else's tortured life and magnificent perseverance. For such solace, pick up a copy of Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman, by Kristie Miller.

The first 60 pages are muddled with names, places and details about the life of the first Arizonan congresswoman. Take the time to absorb these details; while laborious at first, discerning the difference between Julia the nanny and Julia the great-aunt (as well as adapting to the nicknames applied to everyone) will be instrumental in enjoying the entire book.

Miller flip-flops between the names of the players involved in Greenway's rise somewhat recklessly; this recklessness, however, does not take away from the fact that Miller has done her research. Compiling excerpts from Greenway's correspondence, journals and newspaper articles, Miller has satisfactorily meshed them together to create a cohesive re-creation of every stage of Greenway's life.

Born Isabella Selmes on March 22, 1886, in the Badlands of North Dakota, her father was a rancher who supplemented the family income by working as an attorney. Early in her life, the Great Plains experienced the worst winter on record; the result was financial ruin for her family. Isabella's mother--hoping it would improve their status--proceeded to live in luxury, driving them further into debt. Isabella became the charmer of the household, warming up to her father's partners and frequent visitor Theodore Roosevelt, who felt quite a bond to Isabella. All who met her loved her. Just when the family's finances began to bloom, Isabella's father was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and died. Isabella managed a happy and firm front, holding the household together.

Around this time, Roosevelt rallied his Rough Riders, a gallant group that included Lieutenant Robert "Bob" H.M. Ferguson and Lt. John Greenway. As Isabella grew, she learned what it really meant to be destitute; her mother was quickly becoming an alcoholic, and their monthly allowance was barely enough to keep them going. At the same time, due to Isabella's family friendships, she was able to participate in debutante balls.

Among the wealthy and elite of turn-of-the-century America, Isabella met Ferguson, who was many years her senior and madly in love with her. Ferguson introduced Isabella to Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of Teddy Roosevelt and cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt (later to marry FDR). The two became fast friends. Isabella and Ferguson married in 1905, and the future seemed bright, with two new babies. But her husband became ill and needed constant care. Though Ferguson was devoted and kind, he never fully recovered, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Eleanor Roosevelt and Greenway kept close tabs on Isabella and her husband.

World War I began, and Isabella became head of the Women's Land Army for the state of New Mexico. Greenway went to the frontlines; Ferguson, too, attempted to do his part, but was diagnosed with a kidney condition and died. It didn't take Greenway long to begin the flow of love letters that would eventually sway Isabella to remarry. Greenway and Isabella had one child.

With the war over, and its veterans displaced, Isabella saw an opportunity to lend a hand. She started the Arizona Hut workshop, which kept vets occupied and financially fit. She became increasingly political and was named Arizona's Democratic national committeewoman. She decided to invest in land and properties, building the Arizona Inn. She became a political force to be reckoned with. When her second husband died, Isabella stayed strong and on track.

She made significant suggestions to the House Indian Affairs Committee, crashed a Congress stag party dressed as a cigarette girl, re-opened the copper mines, helped draft the Social Security plan, routed electric power from the Coolidge Dam to Casa Grande Valley, worked on grazing rights and fought for Navajo rights. When her time as congresswoman was over, she joined the America Women's Voluntary Services and kept working for the betterment of the world until her death in 1953.

Crafty, resourceful, charming, dedicated and warm-hearted, Isabella Greenway lived a life that was both tumultuous and inspiring. One must thank Miller for reminding us, through the life of Greenway, that a big smile and a lot of determination can overcome any hardship placed before us.

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