Since we’re in the middle of selecting candidates for president of our United States, I thought it would be interesting to write about the first congress woman, Jeannette Rankin, a Republican, who was elected in 1916 to the House of Representatives representing Montana’s District 1.
Rankin was born June 11, 1880 in Missoula County, Montana before it had become a state. Her parents were Olive Pickering and John Rankin, a Scottish-Canadian immigrant who worked as a carpenter and rancher. She was the eldest of six children which included five girls (one of whom died in childhood) and one brother, Wellington. Her brother would become Montana’s attorney general, and later, an associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court. Her parents were progressive thinkers who encouraged their children to believe they could do whatever they set their minds to without considering the narrow gender roles society had set for them.
After Rankin graduated from the University of Montana and the New York School of Philanthropy (now there’s a degree I never heard of.), she turned down three marriage proposals, worked for a short time as a social worker, dressmaker, and furniture designer before she became active in the national effort to win women the vote. In 1914, she returned to Montana to continue her efforts because she believed pioneer conditions had created greater respect for women’s work and abilities in the west which made it easier to convince men to grant women more equal status. Western states like Wyoming and Colorado had already approved women’s suffrage years before, and Rankin’s leadership helped Montana join them in 1914.
Once the vote for women was secured, Rankin put Montana’s new political climate to the test. She ran for one of Montana’s two seats in Congress as a Progressive Republican in 1916. With strong support from both women and men, Rankin became the first woman in history elected to congress. Her brother, Wellington, an influential Republican, financed her campaign and was her most avid supporter.
When she traveled to Washington, D.C. the following year, the nation watched to see if a woman could handle the responsibilities of high office. Rankin soon proved she could, but she also demonstrated that she would not betray her own strongly held political convictions. A dedicated pacifist, Rankin’s first vote as a U.S. congresswoman was to vote against the U.S. entry into World War I. Many supported her courageous stand, while others claimed her vote showed women were incapable of shouldering the difficult burdens of national leadership—despite the fact that 55 men had also voted against the war. Even President Woodrow Wilson had resisted involving the country in World War I. It is said, after delivering his speech to congress asking for a declaration of war, that he wept. And yet, a woman’s vote against the war was criticized.
Rankin’s vote against WWI contributed to her defeat in her 1918 reelection bid. For the next 20 years, she continued to work for the cause of peace. Rankin remained active and committed to other issues of the day as well. On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine disaster in Butte left 168 miners dead, and a massive protest strike over working conditions followed. Rankin attempted to intervene, but mining companies refused to meet with her or the miners, and proposed legislation was unsuccessful.
By 1918, women had been granted some form of voting rights in about forty states, but Rankin became a driving force in the movement for unrestricted universal rights. In January 1918 she opened a congressional debate on a Constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage to women. The resolution passed in the House, but was defeated by the Senate. However, a similar resolution passed both chambers in 1919. After ratification by three-fourths of the states, it became the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Her affirmative vote on the original House resolution made Rankin, as she later noted, "... the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote."
During Rankin's term, the Montana state legislature voted to replace the state's two at-large seats with two separate districts. Rankin ended up in the overwhelmingly Democratic western district. With such a slim chance of retaining her House seat after the reapportionment, she opted to run for the Senate in 1918. After losing the Republican primary to Oscar M. Lanstrum, she accepted the nomination of the National Party, and finished third in the general election behind incumbent Democrat Thomas J. Walsh and Lanstrum.
In 1924, Rankin bought a small farm in Georgia where she lived a bare bones existence without electricity or plumbing. She continued to make frequent speeches around the country on behalf of the Women's Peace Union and the National Council for the Prevention of War. In 1928 she founded the Georgia Peace Society, which served as headquarters for her pacifism campaign until its demise in 1941, just before the United States entered into World War II.
She also worked as a field secretary for the National Consumers League, and as a lobbyist for various pacifist organizations. She supported and argued for the passage of a Constitutional amendment banning child labor. Rankin supported the Sheppard–Towner Act, the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children. The legislation was enacted in 1921 but repealed just eight years later.
The irony cannot be missed that, when she again won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940 at age 60, the nation was about to enter World War II. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Rankin became the only person in the history of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into both world wars. This time, though, the dedicated pacifist from Montana cast the sole dissenting vote. In what I am certain was a very heated debate, it must have been a courageous act for her to stay committed to her ideals. Rep. (later Senator) Everett Dirksen, urged her to change her vote to make the resolution unanimous—or at very least, to abstain—but she refused. "As a woman I can't go to war," she said, "and I refuse to send anyone else." I’m pretty sure she was not the most popular member of congress in that moment.
After the vote, a crowd of reporters pursued Rankin into a cloakroom, where she was forced to take refuge in a phone booth until Capitol Police arrived to escort her to her office. There, she was inundated with angry telegrams and phone calls, including one from her brother, who said, "Montana is 100 percent against you." A UPI photo of Rankin sequestered in the phone booth, calling for assistance, appeared the following day in newspapers across the country. While her action was widely ridiculed in the press, William Allen White, writing in the Kansas Emporia Gazette, acknowledged her courage in taking it:
Probably a hundred men in Congress would have liked to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it. The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly. When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.
Two days later, a similar war declaration against Germany and Italy came to a vote; Rankin abstained. Her political career effectively over, she retired in 1942 rather than face near-certain re-election defeat. Asked years later if she had ever regretted her action, Rankin replied, "Never. If you're against war, you're against war regardless of what happens. It's a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute."
In her later years Rankin traveled the world, frequently visiting India, where she studied the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
You can well imagine how the Vietnam War mobilized her once again in her antiwar efforts. This time, however, she was back by a tremendous movement in the country of pacifists, feminists, and civil rights advocates. In fact, the new generation found inspiration from her. In January 1968, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of women's peace groups, organized an anti-war march in Washington, D.C.—the largest march by women since the 1913 woman suffrage parade. Rankin led five thousand participants from Union Station to the steps of the Capitol Building, where they presented a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts. At the same time, another group of activists from the women's liberation movement created a protest within the Brigade's protest by staging a "Burial of True Womanhood" at Arlington National Cemetery to draw attention to the passive role allotted to women as wives and mothers. In 1972, Rankin who was in her nineties, considered a third House campaign to gain a wider audience for her opposition to the Vietnam War, but longstanding throat and heart ailments forced her to abandon that final project.
Rankin died on May 18, 1973, age 92, in Carmel, California. She bequeathed her estate, including the property in Watkinsville, Georgia, to help "mature, unemployed women workers". The Jeannette Rankin Foundation (now the Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund), a nonprofit organization, awards annual educational scholarships to low-income women 35 and older across the United States. Beginning with a single 500-dollar scholarship in 1978, the fund has since awarded more than $1.8 million in scholarships to more than 700 women.
Rankin's monument in the National Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C.
Whether we agree with Rankin’s ideals or not, we have to admire the courage it took for her to remain true to her principles throughout her life.
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: