When Jeannette Rankin came to Congress in 1917, she found herself casting votes on crucial national issues three years before other American women gained the basic right to vote.
Rankin’s home state of Montana was one of ten western states that by then had granted women the right to vote, even though the 19th Amendment would not be ratified and passed until 1920. An iconoclastic Republican, Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress: She was elected in 1916 and sworn in in 1917.
Rankin already was a famous suffragist. She had worked for voting rights in Montana, which extended the franchise to women (excluding Native American women) in 1914, and several other states. She was also a leader on a national level, whose speaking and organizing skills were widely recognized. A committed pacifist, Rankin is also the only U.S. Representative who voted in Congress against entry into both World War I and World War II. The second vote ended her political career.
“I may be the first woman member of Congress,” Rankin noted upon winning her election. “But I won’t be the last.” Thirty-six at the time of her victory, Rankin, the daughter of a Montana rancher and a schoolteacher, set about to ensure that other American women would win the right many western women already enjoyed. She argued for the creation of a special Committee on Woman Suffrage. The Committee was established and Rankin was appointed to it.
In 1918 Rankin sent a telegram to the National Women’s Party saying she would reintroduce the measure that ultimately became the 19th Amendment in the House. She was the first to rise to speak in its favor. “How shall we explain to [women] the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked. The measure passed the House by one vote, only to be defeated in the Senate.
Jeanette Rankin was born in 1880 near Missoula, Montana, the oldest daughter of seven children. She would reflect that, while she did chores and even helped keep the machinery running on the ranch, she did not have the right to vote. The Rankins were a family that would produce a number of political leaders. Jeannette’s career was always supported (including financially) by her brother Wellington Rankin, four years her junior, and a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard graduate, Montana attorney general and associate justice on Montana’s Supreme Court.
“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
Jeannette graduated from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology. When her father, John Rankin, died in 1904, she took on a number of jobs to help support the younger children. She was able to go to New York to study at the New York School of Philanthropy (which became the Columbia University School of Social Work). Social work was then a relatively new field and Rankin was excited by its promise.
Rankin worked briefly as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, and then enrolled in the University of Washington in Seattle. While there, she became attracted to the suffragist movement. She signed on as a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and became active in the campaign for women’s suffrage in the state of Washington. After Washington granted women the right to vote in 1910, Rankin returned to Montana to work for suffrage there.
Rankin was extremely visible in the national movement. She led women from western states to join women from all over the country to demonstrate for the vote in Washington, D.C., in 1913. This “pilgrimage,” as some suffragists called it, was organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who had recently returned to the U.S. from working with British suffragettes. Memorably, the parade was led by a female lawyer in a white cape riding on a white horse.
When Rankin decided to run for Congress, some suffragists were worried that if she lost, it would be a setback for the cause. Rankin was determined, however. Her official congressional biography states that she enjoyed two distinct advantages: “her reputation as a suffragist and her politically well-connected brother, Wellington, who financed her campaign.” Rankin was nominated to run for one of two of Montana’s at-large congressional seats.
During the campaign, Rankin made no secret of her intention of furthering the cause of women’s suffrage, or of her opposition to war. In notably blunt language, she said, “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.” Rankin came in second state wide, thus claiming one of the two Montana at-large seats. It was the first time the women of Montana had voted in a federal election.
Hyperbolically, a Montana newspaper blamed the suicide of one of the losing candidates, reportedly tormented by the jibe “beat by a woman,” on Rankin’s victory. “The sting of defeat, administered by a woman—Miss Jeannette Rankin, congresswoman from Montana—made Jacob Crull, prominent Montana politician, commit suicide,” North Platte’s Semi-Weekly Tribune declared.
The first swearing in of a woman attracted attention. According to Rankin’s official biography, “Escorted by her Montana colleague, Rankin looked like ‘a mature bride rather than a strong-minded female,’ an observer wrote.’” However, “When her name was called the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice, which she did with entire self-possession.”
Although her real love was the women’s cause, Rankin paid ample attention to the needs of her constituents in Montana, representing them on the Committee on Public Lands, which was of particular importance to the western states. She also supported more moderate unions in a strike, unsuccessfully urging the Woodrow Wilson administration to come to their aid. She expected this to make her unpopular with mining companies. “They own the State,” she noted. “They own the Government. They own the press.”
However, it was her advocacy for women’s suffrage that made her a heroine for her fellow suffragists. She seems to have practiced this advocacy with good humor, always eager to jump into the fray, never refusing to answer a question.
Hyperbolically, a Montana newspaper blamed the suicide of one of the losing candidates, reportedly tormented by the jibe “beat by a woman,” on Rankin’s victory.
“There is a whimsical light in her eye, and a quiver of good humor about her mouth,” Winifred Mallon, an early woman reporter in Washington, wrote in “An Impression of Jeannette Rankin.” The author continued, “If in the time to come any honorable Member may rise in his place to ask, ‘Will the Lady from Montana yield for a question?’ let him not doubt for an instant that the lady will.”
On the evening of Rankin’s first day in Congress, President Woodrow Wilson spoke to a special joint session. Germany was engaging in unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans had sunk four U.S. Merchant Marine ships the previous month. Although originally neutral, Wilson now asked for a declaration of war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Since Rankin was a pacifist, it was expected that she would vote no. Suffragists were worried about the effect such a vote from the first woman in Congress might have. Rankin rejected advice to be cautious. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she said. The vote was 373 for the war resolution and 50 against.
As anticipated, Rankin was roundly denounced. Even though her mail from Montana was heavily against war, the Helena (Montana) Independent compared Rankin to “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.” While NAWSA tried to distance the organization from Rankin’s vote, others such as Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia of New York stood up for her.
The Montana state legislature redistricted the state before Rankin’s next election. Instead of two state-wide seats, there were two districts. Rankin would now have to run against an incumbent in a heavily Democratic district. She chose instead to run for the U. S. Senate, with the promise that she would help prosecute the war she had opposed. Stung by rumors that the Republicans had tried to bribe her to get out of the race, Rankin quixotically decided to run as a third-party candidate. “If Miss R. had any party to back her she would be dangerous,” her opponent said. As was expected, she lost.
After loss, Rankin bought a farm in Georgia and moved there, where she established the Georgia Peace Society. She was the most prominent lobbyist for the National Council for the Prevention of War from 1929 to 1939. She attended international conferences on ending war. When not advocating for pacifism, Rankin engaged in lobbying Congress for such causes as a ban on child labor.
She voted her conscience, even if it meant twice being turned out of Congress, and lived a fulfilled life devoted to her causes.
With World War II becoming increasingly likely, Rankin thirsted for another stint in Congress. She returned to Montana and, emphasizing her historic role as the first woman elected to Congress, launched her campaign. She hoped to defeat an outspoken anti-Semitic incumbent. She won the Republican nomination and went on to win the general election. “No one will pay any attention to me this time,” Rankin said. “There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected.” But Jeannette Ranking being Jeanette Rankin, she was bound to attract attention.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to be moving closer and closer toward a declaration of war. In 1941, Rankin put forward an amendment to the FDR’s Lend Lease Act, aimed at shoring up the Allies. Her amendment stipulated that no troops could be sent abroad unless Congress granted specific approval. The amendment failed. Rankin subsequently introduced an unsuccessful resolution condemning any move “to send the armed forces of the United States to fight in any place outside the Western Hemisphere or insular possessions of the United States.”
She was heading to Detroit to deliver a speech when she received news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Rankin immediately returned to Washington. President Roosevelt delivered his immortal “date that will live in infamy” speech, asking for a declaration of war. Rankin was unpersuaded. The war resolution passed in the House 388 to 1. Rankin was the one. The Associated Press reported that there was “a chorus of hisses and boos” when she cast her vote. “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said.
It was even too much for supportive brother Wellington, who telegraphed Rankin from Montana that “Montana is 100 percent against you.” Rankin had a police escort to protect her as she returned to her office. When she opted not to run again, she was replaced by a young internationalist Democrat named Mike Mansfield.
Rankin lived her post-congressional life in Georgia and Montana, studying the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi. She returned to Washington in 1968 to lead a protest against the Vietnam War. She proudly led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, 5,000 strong, to present a peace petition to Speaker of the House John McCormack.
Two years later, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, Jeannette Rankin was honored with a birthday reception and dinner in the Rayburn House Office Building. She died in Carmel, California in 1973, reportedly—and perhaps predictably—contemplating a third campaign, on an anti-Vietnam War ticket. At 91, according to a New Yorker story, she was still interested in dressing stylishly, and still feisty.
When towards the end of her life a journalist asked her what, if she had to do her life over again, she would change. She said she’d do it the same, only qualifying, “But this time, I’d be nastier.” But Rankin was not nasty. She voted her conscience, even if it meant twice being turned out of Congress, and lived a fulfilled life devoted to her causes. Jeanette Rankin’s leadership deserves to be remembered as we celebrate the amendment for which she worked so hard.