Nellie T. Bush
Women Lawyers ~ Women Leaders Arch
Nellie Bush was a true renaissance woman. Throughout her life she was a teacher, principal, businesswoman, justice of the peace, legislator, attorney, ferryboat pilot, airline pilot, coroner, leader in women's clubs, as well as wife and mother. Her can-do spirit and matter-of-fact gumption paved the way for such a rich life, and provided inspiration to the women of her time.
Nellie was born on November 29, 1888 in Cedar County, Missouri. When she was five years old she moved with her parents to Arizona. Nellie grew up and went to school in Mesa, and later went on to receive her teacher's diploma at Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University). Upon receiving her diploma, Nellie proceeded to teach at schools in Glendale and Mesa until 1912, when she married Mr. Joe Bush.
In 1915, Joe and Nellie moved to Parker, Arizona where Joe purchased a ferryboat business that operated on the Colorado River. To assist her husband's business, Nellie obtained a riverboat license and became the first female ferryboat pilot in Arizona. Life as a pilot was not always easy, especially on what was then a very turbulent Colorado River. Nellie once commented:
"Waves sometimes would be about 8 feet high. Often when we were caught on the river in a storm, we'd have to throw overboard some of the ore. Many a time when the sailing was dangerous and I thought about my baby in the pilothouse, I've uttered a little prayer, ÌÇNow if you'll just let me get this kid off of here alive, I'll never bring him back on board again.' But you'd forget about that after the danger had passed."
Nellie's first entry into public office was in 1918, when she was named Justice of the Peace in Parker, a position she held for six years. Two years later, she was elected to the Arizona State Legislature, where she served 14 years as a representative and two years as a senator. Upon her entry into political office, Nellie remarked 'a woman can be a success, both as a politician and a mother' and she was there to prove it. Nellie was a strong proponent for women's rights and equality and stated that she was '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 difference in sexes.' She also expected to be treated the same as her male colleagues in the legislature:
"With me, I expect nothing more from a man in politics than life gives another man. If he wants to smoke, I say, ÌÇGo ahead and smoke.' And if he wants to swear, I'll sit by and enjoy hearing him do it. If it doesn't hurt him, it certainly isn't going to hurt me."
While serving in the state legislature, Nellie also took time to enroll in law school. She attended the University of Arizona College of Law from 1921-1924, where she was a classmate of another famous Arizona woman, Lorna Lockwood. During summer breaks, Nellie also took courses at the University of California College of Law. Upon graduation, she was admitted to the bar in both Arizona and California and went on to work as an attorney for the Santa Fe Rail Road Company, in addition to her own private practice.
In the 1930s Nellie added to her many accomplishments by becoming an airplane pilot. She remarked that one of her main motivations to get her pilot's license was to keep her son's attention. 'I realized that as a mother I could retain my son's interest, only as long as I could speak his language. When he became interested in flying, I knew I had to know something about aviation. So we both took up the fascinating study.' The Bush family was the first to own a plane in Parker and were responsible for building the town's first airport. Nellie's pilot license came in use with her business and legislative demands allowing her to get to Yuma and Phoenix easily.
Because of her husband's business on the Colorado River, Nellie was active in the debate over Arizona water rights. She served as a member of the Arizona Colorado River Water Commission as well as the Colorado River Basin States Committee. In March 1934, Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur appointed Nellie as the 'Admiral of Arizona's Navy' when he dispatched the Arizona National Guard to take action against the State of California. The governor and legislature believed that California was taking an excessive amount of water for agriculture and that Arizona was losing its share. Nellie and a portion of the Guard went out on her husband's two ferryboats to delay the construction of Parker Dam and compel federal authorities to address Arizona's concerns.
Nellie was also very active in women's organizations. She was responsible for organizing the Glendale Women's Club and Parker Woman's club. The capstone of her political life was in 1955 when she was appointed President of the Arizona Federation of Woman's clubs. Nellie passed away at age 75 on October 27, 1963.
Nellie Bush was surely a woman who believed that she could ÌÇhave it all,' and throughout her life she was successful in accomplishing her goals. Nellie's desire to balance a family life and a career is echoed by many women today, and her story provides a great inspiration to us all.