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An Enterprising Woman
A review by Jo Freeman first published on Senior Women Web in December 2004

Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman by Kristie Miller, University of Arizona Press, 2004 307 pps.

When Isabella Selmes Ferguson Greenway stepped into her new office in October of 1933 after being elected Arizona's first female Member of Congress, she commented that this was her first paying job. After her birth on March 22, 1886 into an upper middle-class family, no one would have predicted a life in politics. Like most women of her class, she was expected to make a good marriage to a man of means and to make his life as comfortable and productive as possible, while raising his children and seeing that they got a good start in life.

In fact Isabella would fulfill some of these conventional responsibilities with three marriages and three children. But she would also serve three years in Congress, become a stalwart of the Democratic Party, build Arizona's foremost hostelry, and oversee the cattle ranch and copper mines that she inherited from her first two husbands.

Nonetheless, her wealth and social standing could not protect her from a life of tragedy. She saw many of the people she loved most become ill and die before their time. While she began and ended her life wealthy, there were times when she or her widowed mother (a hidden alcoholic suffering from depression), could barely pay the bills.

Kristie Miller's fine, new biography shows how this enterprising woman turned tragedy into opportunity, how she both worked within the confinement of women's traditional roles as housewife and mother and also broke their bounds. By looking at the entirety of one woman's life, Miller illuminates the erratic and unpredictable paths that brought women into politics.

Isabella did not come from a political family or marry into one. She moved to New Mexico with her older first husband because he was ill with tuberculosis and the dry desert air was considered healthy. She nursed him for 17 years until he died, while home schooling their two children. Her second marriage, to a wealthy Arizona mine owner, only lasted four years, until a lethal surgery left her a widow for the second time, with one more child, at age 40.

A Roosevelt association marked all of Isabella's life and opened political doors. Her parents became friends of Theodore Roosevelt when both were ranching in the Dakotas. This led to a close, lifelong friendship with TR's niece, Eleanor. When ER married her distant cousin, Franklin, Isabella was one of her bridesmaids. Her first two husbands, Robert H.M. Ferguson and John Greenway, had been rough riders with TR in the war with Spain.

After her second husband's death, Isabella moved to Tucson where she plunged into politics and civic activism. Within two years she was the Democratic National Committeewoman from Arizona, deeply involved in organizing women for Al Smith's presidential campaign. Although Smith lost, in 1932 Isabella led a delegation pledged to FDR to the Democratic Convention. After becoming President, FDR appointed Arizona's sole Member of Congress to be his director of the budget, and the Arizona party chairman asked Isabella to run for the vacancy thus created. She handily won election against two opponents, and re-election two years later. But Isabella didn't like all the demands that being in Congress made on her time, and declined to run again in 1936.

Isabella returned to private life, taking care of various ill and dying family members while tending to her business concerns. After marrying for the third time a few years later she moved to New York City to live with her new husband. By 1940 she was back in politics, but as a supporter of FDR's opponent, Wendell Wilkie. She thought a third term was a misuse of power; objected to FDR's support of the Allies in the European war, and her new husband was a Republican. Until her death in 1953, her life was quieter, but she always retained a strong interest in public affairs, especially those of Arizona.

This fascinating portrait of an enterprising woman shows what women could do in the decades between the two waves of feminism, when women were expected to stay home and out of politics. If you want to know how women struggled to balance the demands of home and work, family and public affairs, and whether or when break the rules, you should read this book.