Isabella Greenway: Single Mother, Congresswoman, Tucsonan

19 Nov

“I wonder if you have ever been in the position I am . . . .”

At the height of the Great Depression, Isabella Greenway was serving as Arizona’s first female congresswoman and the state’s only representative in Washington. The twice-widowed mother of three was a staunch supporter and friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt, and had been close to Theodore Roosevelt and his family throughout her life. Her platform as a U.S. Representative for Arizona included work on behalf of cattle ranching, mining, and conservation.


Isabella Greenway circa 1930. B#205809

Greenway also demonstrated a passionate dedication to assisting veterans. During the First World War, Greenway had led the Women’s Land Army in New Mexico, organizing women in the difficult work of tending farms and harvesting crops while the majority of men were fighting in Europe. As a widow of two veterans of the Spanish-American war, Greenway would continue to make supporting servicemen part of her life’s work. In the 1920s, Greenway founded the Arizona Hut, a Tucson furniture workshop, to employ disabled WWI veterans and their immediate families. When the Great Depression forced the Hut’s closure, Greenway built the Arizona Inn in Tucson, claiming that it gave her a means of providing a permanent home to the surplus handiwork of the veterans. The now world-renowned Arizona Inn still features a woodworking shop that continues the tradition of the Arizona Hut.


First row, l-r: Betsy and James Roosevelt, John Selmes Greenway, Jr., Isabella Greenway, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna Roosevelt Dall, Martha Ferguson Breasted. Williams, Arizona; September 1932. MS0311 (b214 f3058b)

The John and Isabella Greenway papers at the Arizona Historical Society chronicle the work and life of this remarkable woman, along with the lives and careers of her husbands, Robert Munro Ferguson and John Campbell Greenway, both members of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The collection spans the 19th and 20th centuries and a myriad of phases in each of their lives.  In these two featured letters from 1934, Greenway articulates her struggle to maintain a work/family life balance, a matter that continues to be of importance (and a topic of national discussion) for politicians and private citizens alike.

Left to right, Isabella Greenway and her sons, Robert Ferguson, Jr., John (Jack) Selmes Greenway, daughter Martha Ferguson Breasted, and Martha’s husband, Charles Breasted, 1933. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, AHS #72380

Left to right, Isabella Greenway and her sons, Robert Ferguson, Jr., John (Jack) Selmes Greenway, daughter Martha Ferguson Breasted, and Martha’s husband, Charles Breasted, June 1933. AHS#72380

As a respected associate of the Roosevelts and an influential stateswoman, Greenway was nominated to join the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission in 1934.  Greenway had developed a close professional relationship with Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum in 1927, when a sculpture of her recently deceased husband, John Greenway, was placed in Statuary Hall at the U. S. Congress. Greenway had successfully lobbied for the State of Arizona to bestow the honor on her husband, and chose Borglum personally to sculpt the statue of Greenway.

In response to her nomination to the Mount Rushmore Commission, Greenway attempted to decline, citing her already full plate of responsibilities as both the sole representative for the state of Arizona and a busy single mother. The letters make clear how important it was to Greenway to be available in the evenings for her young son, Jack, and how seriously she took her responsibilities as a U.S. Representative during a time of extreme economic hardship.

On June 7th, 1934, Greenway wrote to John Boland, Secretary for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission:


“It has been a great honor to have been appointed on the Rushmore National Memorial Commission. Until I know what the obligations and work are, I will not be able to accept.

Would you be courteous enough to give me an idea of what this service entails? Having the responsibility of the State of Arizona in the House of Representatives is very exacting in these distressing times and allows little margin for outside privileges.

May I hear from you? – and thank you for the trouble of giving me, in detail, what responsibilities fall to the members of the Rushmore National Memorial Commission.”

Over a month later on July 20th, after additional letters from Boland, Greenway was more pointed:


“I wonder if you have ever been in the position I am. I cannot take on one bit more responsibility and do not wish to accept the position on the Mount Rushmore Commission under these circumstances and obligate someone else to do the work. I cannot go to meetings, etc. on account of my small son, who I hardly ever am away from at night.

If you have members who are purely nominal and who really don’t do anything and if I could be one of these I would be glad to accept with pleasure and will depend on your being perfectly frank with me.

These letters serve to humanize a gifted, ambitious woman who gracefully weathered grief, illness, loss, and war, and dedicated her life to the public good. Greenway’s biographer, Kristie Miller, observes that Greenway’s “strength of character in the face of adversity” impressed people of all walks of life in Arizona, from state leaders to disabled veterans to students. In her correspondence, we see a woman who knew her own limits, who had a strong sense of her priorities, and who did not believe in committing herself to a job that she could not finish.  In a few lines, that strength of character and commitment to a greater purpose is palpable.

In the end, Greenway did accept the position on the Mount Rushmore National Commission after all, serving through the remainder of the 1930s, and the completion of the final figure: Greenway’s friend, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1939.

For a closer look at the photos and documents featured in this blog, browse the image gallery below.


The Arizona Historical Society’s library and archives recently collaborated with Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center Digital Library in North Dakota to curate and digitize over 1,100 pages of materials from the John and Isabella Greenway papers. Decades of correspondence between the Roosevelt and Greenway families, as well as other important historical documents, are now publicly available on the Roosevelt Center’s Digital Library website. To learn more about the digitization effort undertaken by the Theodore Roosevelt Center and to see the over 700 documents from the Arizona Historical Society library and archives collections, please visit:

Additionally, be sure to visit the newly opened Medal of Honor exhibit at the Arizona History Museum in Tucson. The exhibit includes a letter written by then Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt to Patty Selmes, mother of Isabella Greenway. For details about the exhibit, please visit:


Miller, K. (2004). Isabella Greenway: An enterprising woman. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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