|Nellie Mae Trent Bush was born in Missouri in 1888, but came to Mesa, Arizona in 1893. Her father suffered from a respiratory ailment, so the family lived in a tent, and Nellie worked alongside her mother to support the family. She held many jobs, such as washing clothes for others and working in the fields and in a beet factory; nevertheless, she still managed to get her teaching degree from Tempe Normal School. Nellie met Joe Bush, an engineer for the trolley line, while she was teaching school in Glendale, and the two married in 1912. When Joe bought a ferry business in Parker in 1915, he moved his young pregnant wife to the tiny and isolated town on the Colorado River. Over the years, Joe and Nellie became promoters for the region, establishing a hotel, bank, power plant, electric company, and many other services for the growing area. In addition to raising her family, Nellie taught and became principal at the Parker school. She also became the first woman to obtain a ferryboat license to navigate the Colorado River.
Nellie began her political career in 1916 when she ran for school trustee, and then in 1918 she was elected as justice of the peace. Encouraged by her success, she ran for representative from Yuma County in 1920; she served in the Arizona House for six sessions and in the State Senate for one session in 1934, becoming the second female state senator.
Nellie believed that women were entitled to hold public office. "I am a firm believer in women going into politicsthe more the better. They simply have to eliminate some of their old fashioned ideas regarding the differences in the sexes," she commented in 1920. She attended the University of Arizona law school and was admitted to practice law in the state in 1924. In the legislature, she became the first woman to chair the Judiciary committee and introduced legislation to create the Children's Colony, an institution to provide for mentally ill children. She sponsored numerous construction bills that benefited northern Yuma County, including legislation to provide bridges, roads, and dams. In the 1920s, she was the first woman appointed as U. S. Commissioner for Arizona, she served as president of the local bank, and she was a member of the joint senate and house committee that investigated corruption in the state Highway Department.
In the 1930s, Nellie Bush received national recognition as "Admiral of Arizona's Navy" during the Parker Dam controversy. When Governor B. B. Moeur authorized National Guard troops to halt construction on the Parker Dam, he authorized Joe and Nellie Bush to bring the troops across the Colorado River. Nellie's photo appeared across the country in newspapers. She learned to pilot her own plane and used it during her unsuccessful run for Congress in 1936. During World War II, she served as chairman of the Women's Division of the Arizona Civilian Defense Council, and in 1947 she was the only woman appointed to the Colorado River Basin States Commission. In 1955, she became president of the Arizona Federation of Women's Clubs. Nellie Bush died in 1963 while serving on the Parker City Council, active to the end.
Visit the Arizona Capitol Museum, located at 1700 W. Washington where Nellie Bush served in the legislature. It is open to the public Monday through Saturday. Call for hours 602-926-3620.
For additional information see Heidi J. Osselaer's book, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009.
Nellie Trent Bush - Courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Archives Division, 98-9900
Arizona Capitol Museum - Courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Museum Division