Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Isabella Selmes Munro-Ferguson (Greenway) (King), 1886-1953
By Sylvia Ramos Cruz, M.D.
Isabella Selmes Greenway has been described as "A peculiar blend of Eastern Establishment aristocracy and frontierswoman: cultured and charming, yet rugged and self-reliant." She was born in Kentucky in 1886 to Tilden Selmes and Martha (Patty) Macomb Flandrau. Tilden was a Yale-educated lawyer who had worked with Abraham Lincoln and owned a sheep ranch in North Dakota jointly with Theodore Roosevelt. When he died in 1895, Patty and Isabella moved to New York. There, Isabella attended the Chapin school with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Theodore Roosevelt's niece. They remained lifelong friends, corresponding across miles and years.
In 1905 she married Robert H. Munro-Ferguson, a member of a wealthy, titled, Scottish family. He was also Theodore Roosevelt's former ranch partner, private secretary, and fellow Rough Rider in the Spanish-American war. Bob developed tuberculosis and the family--children Martha and Robert Jr., Isabella's mother, and Julia Loving, Isabella's African American childhood nurse, moved to Silver City, NM in 1910. The hope was that the climate of the southwest would improve Bob's health.
They settled in Cat Canyon three miles north of Silver City just beyond the Cottage Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. They rented a cottage flanked by Adirondack tents where Bob could remain isolated. Isabella, Patty and Julia took care of the family's needs. They homesteaded, raised and home-schooled the children, planted and harvested gardens, took care of the home, and entertained guests. It was a difficult life.
Despite the distance and rugged terrain, they were visited several times over the years, at different times, by Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt and their respective families. Initially, guests stayed in the Adirondack tents. Eventually, they stayed in the adobe, 14 room commodious home in the nearby Burro Mountains the Fergusons built in 1914.
The 1912 plank for Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party included equal voting rights for women. Extension of the vote fit the Progressive agenda for increased citizen involvement. It also attested to Theodore Roosevelt's belief in woman suffrage that he had written about while a senior at Harvard in 1880. In September 1912, Isabella attended a "monster" rally for Theodore Roosevelt in Albuquerque that was said to be "one of the most remarkable events in the history of the state." She spent four hours touring with him and was persuaded to become active in the Progressive party to help her long-time friend get elected. She polled the local (according to Bob, "reactionary") citizenry in Silver City to gauge their interest in his running, "signed on forty-five men for a Progressive pledge," and felt successful. Thus, her political career began.
It is not clear when she embraced woman suffrage. It seems, in 1912, neither she nor her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, were interested in getting the ballot. Despite this, Isabella counted among her friends some of the most prominent suffragists in Silver City, including Mathilda Koehler, Annette Kinyon, Elizabeth Warren, and Isabel (Belle) Eckles. Belle was elected New Mexico Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1922--one of two women elected to statewide office in New Mexico in the first election in which women had the full franchise. Belle and Isabella remained life-long friends.
In 1913, Isabella was elected to the Silver City Woman's Club, a hotbed of suffrage activity in the state. She became quite active, and the 1914 Club minutes show she was appointed member of the Ways and Means Committee, along with Isabel Eckles. That same year, the club came out in favor of woman suffrage. Annette Kinyon, president of the club, was also 1st vice-president of the New Mexico Greater Federation of Women's Clubs.
In New York, Isabella had been a member of several women's clubs. In 1915, perhaps feeling she had a bit more time, she joined the Tyrone woman's club, the Helping Hand. Members engaged in "maternalistic politics," a term used for community issues that were thought to interest mainly women. Among these, were matters concerning children, public schools, public health, and hygiene.
Though she home-schooled her two children, Isabella periodically sent them to the local school to gauge how they were progressing. The 1917 NM State Blue Book reported that Mrs. Munro Ferguson was appointed to the Grant County Board of Education (at same time as Adelina Otero Warren, was appointed to the Santa Fe County Board).
On President Woodrow Wilson's 1917 call to the nation to conserve food as "Food will win the war," she began urging communities throughout New Mexico to plant war gardens in vacant lands. Using conscripted prisoners to supplement volunteer laborers, she converted one hundred forty acres of land owned by the Phelps Dodge Company into a large community garden. The Company loaned $700 for seeds and implements. She also organized women in southwestern New Mexico to harvest what her mother, Patty, called, "an ocean of corn" near Tyrone. It is no wonder that, as the 1917 Blue Book states, "New Mexico was thus one of the first states--if not the first--to mobilize its women for war service through an effective, state-wide organization." Women had already had extensive practice organizing and working through women's clubs, charitable community organizations, and patriotic endeavors!
In July 1918 Isabella (Mrs. R. H. M. Ferguson) was formally named by Governor Lindsey to head the Woman's Land Army for the state. Over five hundred women joined. They were paid $2 a day plus room and board. Working conditions were harsh. Ten hours spent in the fields, sometimes in temperatures that went over 100 degrees. And, at the end of the day, sometimes no beds, only alfalfa or pine boughs to lie on. Yet, much to the delight and sometimes surprise of the farmers, they got the job done. Twenty women harvested thirty acres of alfalfa in four days, and, in another location, eight women moved, raked and stacked sixteen tons of hay. And they smiled, laughed, played, and survived. Isabella was a hands-on manager who pitched in to help wherever needed, including nursing some of her workers during the influenza pandemic. She drove tractors, raked hay, and picked fruit. She was a "farmerette's farmerette." By August, the Silver City Enterprise announced, "Woman's Land Army Saves Fruit on Gila." She later went on to chair the state's Land Service Committee and serve on the State Labor and Reconstruction Board.
Service on the home front during the war showed women to be capable of tackling men's work, when left unfettered by the constraints of gender roles. They did all this while taking care of their families, homes, jobs, and communities. They were not, as the anti-suffrage narrative went, weak, dependent creatures, unable to organize and direct large enterprises, or even manage the civic responsibility of voting.
After Bob's death in 1922, Isabella moved to Arizona and married John Greenway, former Rough Rider and WWI hero. True to her indefatigable nature as a civic-minded, charismatic, and resourceful woman she ran for and won a seat in the United States Congress. She served two terms (1933-1937) as the only Representative and first woman elected to Congress in Arizona.
During and after her terms in Congress, Isabella Selmes Ferguson Greenway worked to organize women in the Democratic party, encouraging them to run for party positions and offices. Her work helped women access and integrate themselves into careers in state government. She died in 1953 at the Arizona Inn in Tucson. She was survived by her last husband, Harry O. King, her children, Martha, Robert and John, and grandchildren. She was a woman for all seasons.
Berry, Susan and Russell, Sharman Apt. Built to Last: An Architectural History of Silver City, New Mexico. 2nd ed., Silver City Museum Society, 1995
McConnaughy, Corinne. The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment. Cambridge U Press, 2013
Greenway, Isabella Selmes 1886-1953. History, Arts and Archives, United States House of Representatives https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/14116
Hamm, Ron. New Mexico Heroines of the Twentieth Century: Role Models for Today. Sunstone Press, Santa Fe. Unpublished.
Miller, Kristie. Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising Woman. University of Arizona Press, 2004
Miller, Kristie and McGinnis, Robert H., Eds. A Volume of Friendship: The letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway 1904- 1953. The Arizona Historical Society, 2009
New Mexico Blue Book 1917. Secretary of State Antonio Lucero, New Mexico State Records and Archives Center and Hathi Trust Digital Library https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015055034113&view=1up&seq=3&skin=2021
Weiss, Elaine. Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army of America in the Great War. Potomac Books, Inc., Washington D.C., 2008
Albuquerque Morning Journal. September 22, 1912
Santa Fe New Mexican, September 19, 1912
Silver City Independent, November 22, 1910
Silver City Independent, May 7, 1912
Silver City enterprise, July 11, 1913
Silver City Enterprise, July 12, 1918
Silver City Enterprise, August 16, 1918
Silver City Woman's Club minutes 1914-1915, Silver City Woman's Club, Silver City, New Mexico
Stephen Fox. Abstracted and typed notes of Silver City Woman's Club minutes, 1910-1916, Silver City Woman's Club, Silver City, New Mexico. Unpublished