Women Run for Office
Over the last century, women’s political advancements in Arizona were gained in fits and starts. Although women received the right to vote in Arizona in 1912 and ran for office, they remained political outsiders. Democrats and Republicans only reluctantly offered them party committee assignments or assisted them with campaigns. Isabella Greenway was the woman who rallied women to partisan politics in 1928, and in the process became midwife to a golden era of female representation in the 1930s.
As Barry Goldwater said, before the 1950s, “a state Republican convention could have been held in a telephone booth.” Greenway became a leader in the Democratic party when it had the allegiance of over two-thirds of Arizona’s voters. She grew up on a ranch in North Dakota owned by her father in partnership with Theodore Roosevelt, and when she was eighteen became friends with his niece, Eleanor, in New York City. When Eleanor married Franklin Roosevelt in 1905, Isabella served as a bridesmaid at the wedding and the two women remained close the rest of their lives.
After her first husband died, Isabella married mining engineer, former Rough Rider, and World War I hero John Greenway in 1923. When she was left a widow once again, Isabella devoted herself to many of her husband’s interests, including helping veterans and working in politics in her adopted state.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s career took off, she was pressed into party service and appointed the Democratic National Committee Woman for Arizona in 1928. She realized just how ostracized women were, so she traveled throughout the state, rallying women to the party. Former Governor George Hunt proclaimed, “No other woman in Arizona did as much for the success of the party.” The New York Times hailed her as “a political phenomenon, if not a political genius.”
State newspapers were buzzing about which office she would seek, and Democratic women as well as Roosevelt wanted to see her run for governor. Arizona’s political elite, however, uncomfortable with female competition, tried to dissuade her. The editor of a Tucson newspaper said a woman “had no business running for governor.” In the end she chose not to join the race because her youngest son was only four.
Through the years, the primary obstacle to female candidacy has been motherhood. When suffrage leader Frances Willard Munds became a legislator in 1914, her young daughter joined her after school, completing her homework while her mother worked at her desk in the senate chamber. Nellie Trent Bush from Parker, the mother of a young son, was a human dynamo who, in partnership with her husband, ran a ferry over the Colorado River, established hotels, water and electric companies and banks, and was one of the first female students at the University of Arizona’s law school. Despite her obvious ability to juggle family and work, when she entered the legislature in 1921 she was grilled about her suitability for office. Bush bluntly told reporters that it was “all foolishness, this idea that a woman can’t hold two positions and do justice to them. The man is the head of the family, and of his business, yet no one accuses him of neglecting the one for the other. Then why put women in the feebleminded class?”
While Greenway hesitated to run for office, many of the women Greenway recruited into the party were inspired to run themselves. In 1930, six women were elected to the legislature and three more were appointed to fill vacancies, comprising almost 13 percent of the lower house–women in other state legislatures rarely had similar impact until the 1970s. The success of women was so startling there were concerns women might take over state government. One of Greenway’s proteges, legislator Gertrude Bryan Leeper, calmed fears, telling reporters “women were not trying to take men’s places. They are merely trying to find places of their own.”
Early female legislators were housewives or school teachers who focused on traditional interests of women, including education, widows’ pensions, health, and welfare, but by the 1930s, under Greenway’s leadership and with encouragement from Arizona’s Business and Professional Women’s clubs, women with legal and business backgrounds began to make their voices heard on powerful committees. They introduced highway bills and minimum wage laws, spurred dam and bridge construction, and tackled controversial issues like access to birth control and corruption in government. Not all battles were won, but they changed the public perception of female politicians. As one elderly voter told Leeper when she ran in 1930, “Danged if I’d ever thought fifty years ago I’d be fixin’ to vote a woman into office, but I’m mighty glad I lived to see the day of flyin’ machines and radios and a lady in the legislature.”
While most women in national party leadership obtained power through their husbands or fathers, Greenway was unique because her rise to national prominence was a result of her own connections and achievements. In 1932, she played an important role in the presidential campaign, convincing members of California’s delegation to support Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination for president, and during his whistle-stop campaign that fall she hosted him and Eleanor at her ranch in Williams, inviting state luminaries to visit the candidate.
When Roosevelt won the White House that fall, Arizona’s male politicians could no longer ignore Greenway’s clout. The following year, when the sole Arizona member to the U. S. House of Representatives resigned for a position in the Roosevelt administration, the state Democratic chairman asked Greenway to run, and she accepted. She breezed to easy victories in both the primary and general contests over veteran male politicians. During the Great Depression she worked in Congress to help Arizona industries recover, to provide relief for veterans, and to pave Route 66 through the northern portion of the state, but her legacy can best be defined by the numerous qualified women she encouraged to participate in state politics.
Historian Heidi Osselaer is the author of Winning Their Place: Arizona Women and Politics, 1883-1950 (University of Arizona Press, 2009).
Historian, professor, and public speaker. Fanatical about separating fact from fiction in Arizona history. Lives in Phoenix with her husband and fluffy dog Ajax.