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Montana’s Jeannette Rankin was America’s first congressional woman

Jeanette Rankin
Jeanette Rankin

Born in Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880, Jeannette Pickering Rankin became an individual who successfully fought for a woman’s right to vote in both Washington State and Montana, in addition to becoming the first woman to ever serve in the U.S. Congress.

The daughter of Canadian immigrant John Rankin and American-born Olive Pickering, Jeannette was the eldest of six children. John was a rancher and carpenter while Olive taught school. Growing up, Jeannette developed a reputation for doing many things most girls would not do. It was not unusual to find her out helping the ranch hands as they worked on various pieces of machinery. On one occasion, Jeannette took it upon herself to single-handedly build a sidewalk in an effort to help her father rent a building.

Graduating from high school in 1898, Jeannette completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology at the University of Montana during 1902. Immediately after receiving her degree, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a teacher for a brief period of time; then explored additional careers. Deciding marriage held no interest for her, she turned down a goodly number of marriage proposals.

From 1908 to 1909, Rankin attended the New York School of Philanthropy, which later became part of Columbia University. She then moved to Spokane, Washington where she served as a social worker while continuing her studies at the University of Washington. In time, Jeannette discovered her calling to be in the women’s suffrage movement.

While an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party, Rankin lobbied for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Jeannette was an active participant in the push to amend Washington’s state constitution in an effort to provide women the right to vote. Following the successful completion of that goal in 1911, Jeannette returned home to Montana, seeking to achieve the same results there and in 1914, another victory star was added to her list of accomplishments.

Jeannette added her personal page to the history books two years later when she ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Wellington D. Rankin, her brother and a powerful member in Montana’s Republican Party, financed and managed her campaign.

Due to the size of Montana and its scattered population, her campaign involved a large amount of travel. Rankin was kept busy speaking in train stations, at potluck suppers on various ranches and visiting multitudes of remote one-room schoolhouses. She won the election by more than 7,500 votes; a unique event given the fact her win occurred during a time in American history when most women still did not have the right to vote. Following her victory, Rankin said, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.

Rankin was in attendance when the vote was taken regarding whether or not the United States would enter World War I. As a zealous conscientious objector, Rankin numbered among the 50 members of Congress who voted against the measure. “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say ‘no’ to war, she should say it.” There were those who considered Rankin’s vote to be discrediting towards the suffragist movement; however, others, such as Representative Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, applauded her for it.

As the country went to war, Rankin began to fight for the rights of those women who were contributing to the war effort. She also played an active role in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, officially granting women the right to vote.

Rankin was in Washington, D.C. when the Speculator Mine disaster occurred on June 8, 1917; resulting in the deaths of 168 miners and erupting into a massive protest regarding working conditions in the mine. She quickly returned to Montana in an effort to meet with officials from the mining companies; however, her efforts proved unsuccessful and the legislation she proposed failed.

During her first term in office, the Montana legislature restructured the state’s voting districts. This resulted in Rankin’s district becoming heavily Democratic. Her attempts to run for the US Senate in 1918 failed as she finished second in the Republican primary. She then attempted to campaign on a third-party ticket and ended up a disappointing third. Although her efforts in the Senate race were unsuccessful, Rankin did achieve success in that she helped to destroy the public’s negative attitudes with respect to women becoming members of Congress.

Rankin’s two year term in the House ended in 1919. She moved to Georgia where she bought a piece of land, formed the Georgia Peace Society, promoted pacifism and organized social clubs for children. She became a lobbyist with the National Council for the Prevention of War and served as field secretary for the National Consumers League. Rankin threw her support behind the Sheppard-Towner Act, the nation’s first social welfare program which was designed explicitly for women and children. At the same time she argued for the passage of a constitutional amendment which would ban child labor. The Sheppard-Towner Act was enacted in 1921, only to be repealed eight years later.

Rankin now turned her attention to serving as a delegate to the Women’s International Conference for Peace in Switzerland. Here she joined such noted individuals as Alice Hamilton, Jane Addams and Lillian Wald. She also served in several key positions during the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Montana voters returned Rankin to Congress in 1940. After defeating Jacob Thorkelson, the incumbent and an outspoken anti-Semite, Rankin took a seat on both the Committee of Insular Affairs and the Committee on Public Lands.

When Rankin returned to Congress to serve her second term, she was no longer the only woman seated in the House Chamber. Six others now joined her, one of which was Margaret Chase Smith from Maine. Though serving together in Congress, the two women marched to the beat of very different drummers, with Rankin promoting pacifism and Smith advocating military preparedness.

By now, World War II had fully engulfed Europe. Rankin held tight to her pacifist convictions regarding America’s involvement, despite the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As hisses were heard from the gallery regarding Rankin’s vote, she qualified her behavior by stating, “As a woman, I can’t go to war; and I refuse to send anyone else!” Due to the strong public outcry in response to Japan’s attack, Rankin found herself in a minority of one; the only congressional member to oppose the entry of the United States into World War II. When she left the House chamber following the vote, an angry mob fell in step behind her. Rankin quickly sought refuge in a telephone booth and required the assistance of the congressional police to rescue her.

Jeannette Rankin left office again in 1943 and now spent her time traveling. One of her trips took her to India where she studied under Mahatma Gandhi. Carrying her pacifist beliefs throughout her life, Rankin spoke out against military action by the United States in both Korea and Vietnam. It was Rankin’s opinion that the dysfunction and corruption within the United States government was due to the fact there was not enough feminine participation among the rank and file. Speaking at a disarmament conference, she stated, “The peace problem is a woman’s problem.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Rankin and her views were idolized by the feminists, pacifists and those who advocated for civil rights. In Washington, D. C. during January 1968, Rankin led 5,000 marchers in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade to protest the war in Vietnam. Upon reaching the Capitol, a peace petition was presented to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.

When she died on May 18, 1973 in Carmel, California, Jeannette Rankin was the only legislator to have voted against America’s participation in both world wars. She was also remembered for the tireless effort she showed on behalf of women’s suffrage.

Rankin bequeathed the property she still owned in Watkinsville, Georgia to help “mature, unemployed women workers.” A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, originally named The Jeannette Rankin Foundation and later changed to The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, began in 1978, awarding educational scholarships each year to low-income women 35 years of age and older. The first scholarship in 1978 was worth $500. Since that time, the size of the scholarships has grown, with more than 700 women receiving in excess of $1.8 million. In 2012, 85 scholarships were awarded, each worth $2,000.

A statue of Jeannette Rankin is now housed in Statuary Hall within the United States Capitol building. At the statue’s 1985 dedication, historian Joan Hoff-Wilson referred to Rankin as “one of the most controversial and unique women in Montana and American political history.” A replica of this same statue is on display in Montana’s capitol building in Helena.

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"I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last."

Jeannette Pickering Rankin - 1916

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