Greenway, Isabella Selmes (1886–1953)

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Greenway, Isabella Selmes (1886–1953)

American congresswoman, frontier homesteader, cattle rancher, airline operator, hotel owner, and community activist. Name variations: Isabella Selmes Ferguson Greenway King. Born Isabella Selmes on March 22, 1886; died on December 18, 1953, at her home at the Arizona Inn, of congestive heart failure; daughter of Tilden Russell Selmes (a rancher and lawyer) and Martha Macomb (Flandrau) Selmes; attended Miss Chapin's and Miss Spence's schools, New York City; married Robert H. Munro Ferguson, on July 15, 1905 (died 1922); married John Campbell Greenway, on November 4, 1923 (died 1926); married Harry Orland King, on April 22, 1939; children (first marriage) Robert and Martha; (second marriage) John Selmes.

Father ranched in South Dakota, lost ranch in blizzards (1886–87); moved to St. Paul, Minnesota; spent summers on mother's family farm in Boone County, Kentucky; father died (1895); moved to New York City to attend high school (1901); husband Bob diagnosed with tuberculosis (1908); lived at sanitarium near Saranac Lake, New York (1908–10); homesteaded in New Mexico, served on local school board and, during World War I, on local National Defense Council and as chair of Women's Land Army of New Mexico (1911–21); moved to Santa Barbara, California (1921–22); bought ranch near Williams, Arizona, then moved to Tucson and opened the Arizona Hut, a rehabilitation workshop for veterans, among other community activities (1927); appointed national Democratic committeewoman from Arizona (1928–32); campaigned for Al Smith (1928); co-founded G & G commuter airline (1929–30); founded Arizona Inn, resort hotel (1930); seconded nomination of Franklin Roosevelt at Democratic national convention and campaigned for him (1932); elected congresswoman-at-large in special election (1933–37); was active in the Democrats for Willkie movement (1940); served as chair of American Women's Voluntary Services (1941).

Isabella Selmes Greenway led a highly textured life. Her infancy was spent on a snowswept ranch in South Dakota, where young Theodore Roosevelt was a neighbor. Her adolescence was spent in New York where a wealthy uncle enabled her to attend an exclusive girls' school. A bridesmaid at the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt , she also became involved in mining, ranching, and aviation; founded a furniture cooperative for disabled veterans; established an inn; achieved national prominence when she seconded Franklin Roosevelt's nomination at the Democratic convention; and was elected to Congress. Remarkably good-looking, at home in Southern tobacco country, on Western ranches, or in New York salons, shrewd, energetic and idealistic, she was, as her obituary in The New York Times claimed in something of an understatement, "one of the more colorful personalities who flashed into prominence in the political upheaval that brought Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency."

Isabella Selmes was born in 1886 on Dinsmore Farm in Boone County, Kentucky, the home of Julia Stockton Dinsmore , her mother's great-aunt, who both ran the farm and published poetry. Shortly after Isabella's birth, her mother Martha Selmes , with Isabella in arms, rejoined her husband Tilden on his cattle ranch near Mandan, South Dakota, where Theodore Roosevelt also had a ranch. Roosevelt and Tilden Selmes lost most of their livestock in the blizzards of 1886–87, as did many, and Tilden quit ranching and moved to St. Paul, where his mother's father lived, to practice law. He died of cancer when Isabella was nine.

For the next few years, Greenway spent winters with her grandparents in St. Paul and summers at Dinsmore Farm, where her mother supported them from the sale of bacon and ham. In 1901, her mother's brother-in-law and sister, Franklin and Sarah Cutcheon , invited Isabella and her mother to live with them in New York. Cutcheon, a corporate lawyer, helped with the cost of clothes and tuition so Isabella could attend Miss Chapin's and Miss Spence's schools, where she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Don't you ever tell me I can't do anything.

—Isabella Greenway

During her debutante season, Isabella met Bob Ferguson, a Scot who had served with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. They were married in 1905 and had two children. In 1908, Ferguson was diagnosed with tuberculosis. For two years, the Fergusons lived at a sanitarium near Saranac Lake, New York. From 1910 to 1913, when Ferguson was advised to move to the dry climate of the southwest, the family lived in tents in Cat Canyon, near Silver City, New Mexico. At that time, a tuberculosis patient like Ferguson would have been warned to have separate eating utensils and bedding, and not to touch his wife or children. Isabella, with the help of her mother, was able to run the unorthodox household, nurse her husband, educate the children, manage the cattle ranch, and even entertain guests like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who made several visits. Eventually, the Fergusons built a large sprawling house with gardens and a pool.

Isabella Greenway was active in the community, serving as chair of the local school board 1914–16; she began by closing the schools because the taxes for their support had not been paid. During World War I, she was chair of the Grant County National Defense Council, and she organized and headed the Women's Land Army of New Mexico, which raised and harvested crops and took over other work in place of the men who were away in the army. During the epidemic of influenza which followed the war, she worked to help former Land Army families.

When Bob Ferguson's condition worsened in 1921, the family moved to Santa Barbara, California, where the children could attend school. Ferguson died in October 1922. During his illness, the family had been assisted by Bob's friend and fellow Rough Rider John Campbell Greenway. Jack, 14 years Isabella's senior, had been a star athlete at Yale, a resourceful mining engineer, and a decorated soldier during World War I who was promoted to brigadier-general in 1922. He and Isabella were married in 1923, and their son John Selmes was born a year later. Jack Greenway was at the height of a successful career, and the couple traveled throughout the country in his private railroad car, visiting his mining interests in the West, going East to lobby for development projects, or to California for vacation. During one of his trips, Jack experienced a gall bladder attack; as a preventative measure, he allowed his doctors to remove the gall bladder before a planned expedition to southern Africa where he had mining interests. He died of a blood clot a week later.

After his death, Isabella Greenway continued many of their intended projects. She bought a ranch outside of Williams, Arizona, near the Grand Canyon, where they had planned to raise cattle. She invested in a commuter airline with Charles W. Gilpin, a pilot who had been Jack Greenway's chauffeur. Both Greenways had been concerned with the plight of soldiers wounded in World War I, and in 1927 Isabella Greenway moved to Tucson and opened the Arizona Hut, a workshop where disabled veterans or their families could earn a living by making furniture. By the end of 1928, 40 people were working, and Greenway found outlets at large retail stores in major cities. In 1930, Isabella Greenway, who by that time had built or completely renovated six houses, began construction on a resort hotel, the Arizona Inn, where furniture from the Hut could be used. The Depression finally put the Hut out of business, but the Inn prospered. The ambiance Greenway created, comfortable and private, attracted celebrities from the very beginning.

Jack Greenway had also entertained political ambitions, seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1922, and attending the Democratic national convention as a delegate in 1924, where he received a nomination for vice-president. As his wife, Isabella had met many Arizona politicians. Later, her work with the veterans brought her national attention. In addition, she was active in the Tucson community, fund-raising and serving on the boards of local charitable organizations. In 1928, she was elected Democratic national committeewoman, a position which she expanded into a full-time job, campaigning vigorously for Al Smith. After the election, she reorganized the Democratic Party, integrating the men's and women's divisions for greater unity and efficiency. She was re-elected to the post in 1930. The Depression created political issues for which the Democrats offered solutions. By 1932, Greenway was credited with having won the commitment of the Arizona delegation to Franklin Roosevelt's nomination, and she traveled with them to the Democratic convention in Chicago to second that nomination herself.

Roosevelt visited her ranch in Williams during his September campaign tour through the West; his visit there, and in Phoenix, marked the first time a national candidate had visited Arizona in 20 years. Isabella Greenway organized the Democratic Party in Arizona to support his candidacy, the only woman among Roosevelt's state leaders, and toured the state on his behalf. When Roosevelt nominated Arizona's sole congressman, Lewis W. Douglas, as director of the budget, Isabella Greenway was well-placed to run for a statewide office.

She had been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate in prior years, but considered that it would be unfair to her young son. By 1933, however, Jack was nearly nine years old, and she declared her intention to run. She used an airplane to make stops on her speaking tour; the novelty gained her publicity as well as convenience in a state where roads were often poor. There was little difference between Greenway and her two principal opponents for the Democratic nomination. Isabella stood out because of her ability to project her empathy for people through her experiences on the Boone County farm, her mining contacts, her role as the widow of a war veteran. Her opponents made an issue of her gender indirectly; one spoke of himself as a "real he man," and of Congress as a place where "men meet men." Several congresswomen had been serving since the 1920s, however, so the argument, according to Avan Probst's 1994 study of Greenway's campaign, persuaded no one who was not already convinced that women should not be in politics. Greenway downplayed her position as a longtime friend of the president: "A great deal has been said about my being a friend of the Roosevelts," she was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "The Roosevelts have thousands of friends not qualified to be congressmen. I am not asking for votes on that basis, but on the basis that I feel qualified to do the work." She won easily in both the primary and the general elections.

The Depression had closed down the copper mines, and more than 140,000 men and women were on relief. Ten days after the election, Greenway visited Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the Public Works Administrator, who promised money for irrigation and flood control projects, as well as a new post office in Phoenix.

Greenway, in her maiden speech, surprised those who had expected her to be a creature of the administration by criticizing Roosevelt for his opposition to a veterans' benefits bill. In her second term (she was easily re-elected in 1934), the bill became law. In 1935, she again took issue with Roosevelt, this time over the social security bill. Roosevelt insisted that the entire package be passed, but Greenway, fearing agreement impossible, urged separate consideration of the old-age pension, its least controversial aspect. She also worked effectively to secure bills which helped re-establish Arizona's cotton and copper industries, and to revise the tax code to give people economic security to enjoy the "liberty of living" which she believed was every citizen's right. Her tenure in Congress was not without its light-hearted moments. Her son Jack, who had a pass to the gallery, would come after school to wait for his mother to finish work. Sometimes he would bring his roller skates, and his mother would join him in skating through the halls of Congress.

The energetic lobbying for her constituents Greenway exhibited during her first week on the job was characteristic of her entire three years in Congress. At the end of 1936, she announced her intention to retire, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family. Many speculated that she was leaving because of her well-publicized disagreements with Roosevelt. Jack Greenway believed, however, that, as Arizona's only representative in the lower House, his conscientious mother was simply overworked and exhausted: "Everybody who wanted somebody to go and trace out… their lost veteran's pension, they spread the word how good she was and she got thirty referrals." She also declined suggestions that she run for governor.

Two years later, Isabella Greenway married Harry O. King, a New York and Bridgeport industrialist who had been the copper code administrator of the National Recovery Administration during the time she was in Congress. She divided her time between the East Coast and Arizona, where her Arizona Inn continued to flourish.

In 1940, convinced that presidents should not serve more than two terms, Greenway refused to support Franklin Roosevelt, and she adamantly opposed America's entry into the European war. She joined Democrats for Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate. Roosevelt, seldom tolerant of what he perceived as disloyalty, pointedly invited her children to dinner at the White House without including Greenway. After America went to war following Pearl Harbor, she was named chair of the board of directors of the American Women's Voluntary Services, which gave women defense training in case of invasion. The Arizona Inn was classified as an "essential industry," due to the need for accommodations near the air base and naval training schools in the area. Isabella Greenway died in her home at the Arizona Inn on December 18, 1953, the 23rd anniversary of the opening of the Inn, of a heart attack, and was buried at her childhood home in Boone County, Kentucky.


Brophy, Blake. "Tucson's Arizona Inn: The Continuum of Style," in The Journal of Arizona History. Vol. 24, no. 3. Autumn 1983, pp. 255–282.

Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. NY: Praeger, 1973.

Probst, Avan S. "Isabella Greenway: Arizona's 1933 Congresswoman." M.A. Thesis, Northern Arizona University, 1994.


Correspondence and papers at the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, Arizona; papers and memorabilia at the Dinsmore Foundation, Boone County, Kentucky.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)

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Greenway, Isabella Selmes (1886–1953)

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