Jeannette Rankin, First U.S. Congresswoman
On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. This trailblazer set the stage for generations of American women to participate in national politics. And for someone who entered the political spotlight nearly 100 years ago, her platform issues and struggles seem surprisingly familiar and current.
Born in 1880 in what was then the Montana Territory, Rankin grew up in Missoula and attended Montana State University. After graduating with a degree in biology, she spent several years trying to settle on a profession. She tried teaching, furniture design and social work, but nothing truly stuck – until she discovered the women’s suffrage movement.
Stemming from Rankin’s belief that “Men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn’t make sense not to use both,” in 1910 she joined the fight for equal rights and representation for women. She marked an important women’s rights milestone by becoming the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature.
The focus of her suffrage efforts was an echo of the founding fathers’ “No Taxation Without Representation” rallying cry: women made up half the population, but were completely unrepresented in Congress. “We’re half the people; we should be half the Congress,” she declared.
By 1912, Rankin had entered the national scene in the suffrage movement. That year, she was appointed field secretary of the National Woman Suffrage Association, and the following year she was one of thousands of women who marched in Washington, D.C., in the Woman Suffrage Parade. In 1914 came a victory that must have been particularly sweet for Rankin – Montana granted women the right to vote. This had an almost immediately obvious impact; it was just two years later that the women and men of Montana elected Jeannette Rankin to their 2nd District seat in the House of Representatives.
Another of Rankin’s lifelong convictions was soon to be tested: her anti-war sentiment. Rankin was a passionate pacifist, once declaring, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” On April 6, 1917, just a month into Rankin’s term, the House voted on a resolution to enter World War I. Rankin – along with 49 colleagues – voted against it. She, unlike most, entered her vote along with a comment: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” But it wasn’t enough to sway a majority. The war was on, and Rankin was up for the criticism of hawks nationwide. Even the suffrage movement dropped their support of her (although they would later come out against World War I).
It didn’t seem to faze Rankin. She continued to fight for women’s right to vote, and in 1917 she opened the congressional debate on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. This later became the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 gave women nationwide the right to vote.
Her victory in this fight must have been bittersweet, because her pacifist convictions cost Rankin her elected role soon afterward. She ran for Senate as a Republican, and when she lost that race, she entered the House race as an Independent. Support of World War I was popular enough at this point that she was defeated in a landslide.
Outside of political office, Rankin continued to fight for peace and civil rights, working with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the ACLU, and other organizations. She kept herself in the forefront of these movements and her work earned her another shot at politics.
Rankin’s anti-war stance during her 1939 Congressional run may have helped her, since at such an early stage in World War II, the U.S. still leaned toward staying out of Europe’s war. Campaigning that we should remain strong but neutral, she won. When she began this second term, more than 20 years after she began her first, she was one of six women in the House – plus two serving in the Senate. Women weren’t yet flooding through the doors Rankin had opened, but they were beginning to step confidently through.
Unfortunately for Rankin, her days of political popularity were numbered. When, in 1941, Congress voted to enter World War II, hers was the lone dissenting vote. Rankin again entered her vote with a comment: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Her public image plummeted, and she was denounced by the press and other politicians. She didn’t bounce back, and when the next campaign season started, Rankin didn’t even attempt to run, knowing it was futile.
Although Rankin’s days in political office were over, she maintained her commitment to end war. In 1968, 55 years after her first march on Washington, Rankin was back in D.C. to lead an anti-Vietnam War protest march. And her work to advance women in society endured throughout her life and beyond: upon her death in 1973, she bequeathed her property to help “mature, unemployed women workers.” This blossomed into the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, which provides educational scholarships to low-income women.
Rankin’s legacy continues in another way, too: in the 77 women currently serving in the House of Representatives, in the 17 women serving in the Senate, in our female Secretary of State and Speaker of the House and Secretary of Homeland Security, and in the myriad other women serving in federal, state and local government. The many prominent women who ran in last week’s elections, whether they won or lost, can thank Jeannette Rankin for helping make it possible for them to even vote, much less campaign.
The U.S. hasn’t yet advanced to Rankin’s vision of a Congress balanced across gender lines, but it seems to get a little closer at each election. Rankin would be proud.