Even though she told the Arizona Republic in 1936 that roller skating “scares the life out of me,” Nellie T. Bush didn’t think twice when Arizona’s governor declared martial law and asked her to ferry armed National Guard troops across the Colorado River in 1934 to stop California workers from completing the controversial Parker Dam project. She probably didn’t even blink when her boat somehow got stuck in the water and her modest fleet had to be rescued by the Californians, in one of the more comical snapshots from Arizona’s long battle for Colorado River water. Despite the muddled mission being one of the most well-known aspects of her life, there’s way more to Bush’s story than that.
At first glance, she seems like your average woman from the early 1900s. Born in 1888 in Missouri, Bush moved to Mesa at age 5. Because her father suffered from a respiratory illness that often prevented him from working, Bush strived alongside her mother to support the family by washing laundry, milking cows and shelling almonds, all while attending grade school. She paid her way through Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University) by bookkeeping for a laundry and graduated in 1908 with a teaching license. She taught in Mesa and Glendale schools, married the man who used to pull her pigtails in school, and had a son named Wesley.
But add on the titles politician, state senator, riverboat pilot, and admiral of the Arizona Navy, and suddenly you’re talking about an entirely different type of 1900s woman. “Nellie was quite a colorful person,” says Heidi Osselaer, author of Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950. “She didn’t let gender get in the way of anything, and I think that’s why she had a lot of success in her career.”
Bush could be considered an early feminist. “To her, [female empowerment] was just such a given,” Osselaer says. Known for asking “Why not?” when someone told her she couldn’t pursue a given role or interest, she was committed to the idea of gender equality and equal opportunity between the sexes. She once said, “I am a firm believer in women going into politics – the more the better. They simply have to eliminate some of their old-fashioned ideas regarding the differences in the sexes.”
In 1915, she came to the city of Parker, six months pregnant, to help her husband run the ferry boat business he bought; consequently, she became the first woman in Arizona to obtain a license to pilot ferryboats, which she did for 17 years. Together, the Bushes developed several other businesses to improve the city, including a hotel, bank, power plant, movie theater and more. In addition to starting these businesses, she was teaching the upper-level grades at the Parker school, and served as principal for a semester. Deciding to pursue a political career, she became a school trustee in 1916, and was elected justice of the peace for the city in 1918. She oversaw marriages and burials, even performing the duties of a coroner. “People said, ‘You can’t do that; it’s an inappropriate job for a woman to be in charge of inquests and burials,’” Osselaer says. “[Bush’s] answer was, ‘Well, as if it’s any more difficult for me than for a man.’”
In 1920, Bush was elected to the Arizona State Legislature as representative for Yuma County, a seat she held for 14 years. During this time, she passed the bar in both California and Arizona after attending law school at University of Arizona, and was appointed the first female U.S. Commissioner for the state. In 1934, she became Arizona’s second female state senator (see sidebar) and ran for Congress in 1936 with the campaign slogan “The Best ‘MAN’ in the Race for Congress.” It proved an unsuccessful campaign – stymied, perhaps, by the glass ceiling she otherwise obliterated all her life.
In 1934, the federal government started construction of the Parker Dam to divert some of the Colorado River to southern California. Arizona Governor Benjamin B. Moeur suspected Californians of taking more than their fair share of water from the Colorado; he also wasn’t too pleased that neither the state’s legislature nor the feds had requested Arizona’s permission to build on its land. Moeur therefore appointed Bush the “Admiral of Arizona’s Navy,” and instructed her to delay the dam’s construction and force the federal government to take notice by transporting a group of 100 armed National Guard troops from Phoenix across the river on her husband’s two riverboats. Reports vary as to exactly where it happened – on the California or Arizona side – but one of Bush’s riverboats got stuck in the water in the midst of Bush’s interdiction effort. “I heard they never made it over because they got tangled in some wire,” Osselaer says. Reportedly, Bush and her crew had to recruit a group of California construction workers to help set the riverboat free.
Despite Bush’s blush-worthy blunder, the publicity stunt successfully drew attention to advance Arizona’s cause. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes halted the dam’s construction until the Supreme Court voted in favor of Arizona. The state agreed to let California continue construction of the dam, which was finished in 1938, in exchange for a federally-funded irrigation system (now the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project). The Colorado River Compact was ultimately ratified in 1944, securing Arizona’s share of water. “They accomplished what they sought to do,” Osselaer says. “It really reached a national audience... Someone in the Los Angeles Times wrote a poem about Nellie, and everyone in New York and Chicago and all the newspapers were talking about this.”
“It really helped Nellie’s political career,” Osselaer continues. “It launched her name statewide a lot more than it would’ve been because of this.”
Bush’s riverboat captaining and political careers were just two of the several roles she held during her life, and she didn’t think personal and professional goals were mutually exclusive, either. “Certainly, I believe that a woman can be a success, both as a politician and as a mother,” Bush once said. “I’m here to prove it.”
Arizona Female Firsts
1909: Sharlot Hall is appointed Territorial Historian, the first woman to hold a territorial position in the U.S.
1912: Women are granted the right to vote in Arizona before the federal 19th Amendment is ratified in 1920.
1914: Frances Willard Munds becomes Arizona's first female state senator.
1914: Rachel Berry becomes the first female member of the Arizona House of Representatives.
1933: Isabella Greenway becomes Arizona’s first congresswoman.
1943: Lt. Edith Greenwood is the first woman awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism during a fire at a military hospital in Yuma.
1963: Justice Lorna Lockwood becomes the first woman in the U.S. to serve as chief justice of a state supreme court.
1988: Rose Mofford becomes Arizona’s first female governor.
2014: The Arizona National Guard elects its first female general, Brig. Gen. Kerry Muehlenbeck.