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Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to U.S. Congress, assumes office

Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to U.S. Congress, assumes office


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Jeannette Pickering Rankin, the first woman ever elected to Congress, takes her seat in the U.S. Capitol as a representative from Montana.

Born on a ranch near Missoula, Montana Territory, in 1880, Rankin was a social worker in the states of Montana and Washington before joining the women’s suffrage movement in 1910. Working with various suffrage groups, she campaigned for the women’s vote on a national level and in 1914 was instrumental in the passage of suffrage legislation in Montana. Two years later, she successfully ran for Congress in Montana on a progressive Republican platform calling for total women’s suffrage, legislation protecting children, and U.S. neutrality in the European war. Following her election as a representative, Rankin’s entrance into Congress was delayed for a month as congressmen discussed whether a woman should be admitted into the House of Representatives.

READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About Jeannette Rankin

Finally, on April 2, 1917, she was introduced in Congress as its first female member. The same day, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and urged a declaration of war against Germany. On April 4, the Senate voted for war by a wide majority, and on April 6 the vote went to the House. Citing public opinion in Montana and her own pacifist beliefs, Jeannette Rankin was one of only 50 representatives who voted against the American declaration of war. For the remainder of her first term in Congress, she sponsored legislation to aid women and children, and advocated the passage of a federal suffrage amendment.

In 1918, Rankin unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat, and in 1919 she left Congress to become an important figure in a number of suffrage and pacifist organizations. In 1940, with the U.S. entrance into another world war imminent, she was again elected as a pacifist representative from Montana and, after assuming office, argued vehemently against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s war preparations. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the next day, at Roosevelt’s urging, Congress passed a formal declaration of war against Japan. Representative Rankin cast the sole dissenting vote. This action created a furor and Rankin declined to seek reelection. After leaving office in 1943, Rankin continued to be an important spokesperson for pacifism and social reform. In 1967, she organized the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, an organization that staged a number of highly publicized protests against the Vietnam War. She died in 1973 at the age of 93.


How the First Woman Was Elected to U.S. National Office, Exactly 100 Years Ago

O n the eve of the Election Day that will cap Hillary Clinton&rsquos campaign as the first-ever woman nominated for President of the United States by a major party, the U.S. marks an important anniversary in the history that made Clinton&rsquos run possible. It was precisely a century ago, on Nov. 7, 1916, that Montana&rsquos Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives. She was the first woman ever elected to U.S. national office.

Rankin&rsquos career would go on to be remarkable for many reasons notably, she voted against America&rsquos entry into both World War I and World War II. But little could compare with the momentous fact of her election. Some national suffrage-movement leaders might have rather had someone else break that particular barrier, say James Lopach and Jean Luckowski, the authors of Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman, but only Rankin had each of the rare political ingredients needed to get there.

So what did it take to get Rankin into office? And what do those factors tell us about today?

One of the first factors, say Lopach and Luckowski, was the campaigning that Rankin had done for women&rsquos suffrage in Montana. Not only did that work result in the successful 1914 expansion of the vote in her home state&mdashallowing women to help vote her into office shortly after, years before they were granted the right to vote nationwide&mdashbut it also introduced her to voters as a powerful political figure. Despite the relative difficulty of traversing the large state at the time, Rankin traveled from one end to another campaigning for her cause. (An internal schism among suffrage workers over whether it made more sense to go state by state or start with a change to the U.S. Constitution was one of the reasons why some national leaders did not support Rankin until after her election was successful.)

&ldquoShe had built a tremendous base of women who were very loyal. They had clubs and she organized them,&rdquo says Luckowski. &ldquoIt was a very personal experience for her across this very big state.&rdquo

Secondly, she had the advantage of a major national issue to which she could hitch her campaign. The suffrage movement of the time was closely linked to the temperance and prohibition movement&mdashbut, Lopach and Luckowski say, the teetotalers had much more publicity and public concern on their side. Alcohol was a make-or-break issue that could overwhelm the rest of a voter&rsquos concerns. By aligning herself with temperance activists, regardless of her own views about prohibition, Rankin was able to capitalize on that wave of voter sentiment.

Next, she had the advantage of Montana&rsquos unusual political structures. The state was represented in the House by two at-large members of Congress. In other words, everyone voted for two people, rather than half the people voting for one person and the other half voting for another person. Rankin, says Lopach, knew she was unlikely to get the most votes in the state&mdashbut she also knew that, given the at-large structure, she could still make it to Washington as the second-favorite pick. She even made a point, in her campaigning, to acknowledge that voters could cast a vote for their favorite man and just put her for number two. (Throughout her life, Lopach says, she championed multiple-member congressional districts as a way to open the House to candidates who might have a hard time coming in first.)

And finally, she had the support network to back up her political hopes. Rankin&rsquos brother Wellington was one of Montana&rsquos best-known men, with wealth and contacts to spare. He threw his support&mdashfinancially and socially&mdashbehind his sister. &ldquoThere&rsquos a lot written about women in politics historically, and the barriers, and often it was a husband or a father who gave them a leg up, and in this case it was her brother,&rdquo says Lopach. &ldquoHe helped her overcome the barriers.”

As it turned out, the forces that were necessary to get her into office weren&rsquot sufficient to keep her there. She was less naturally suited to governing than to campaigning and, more importantly, a rearranging of Montana&rsquos representation meant that she was unable to run for reelection after her first term. She ran for Senate instead. She lost. (The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Caraway in 1932 Rankin was reelected to the House for another term in 1940.)

But perhaps the most important lesson of Rankin&rsquos election was one that she learned, rather than one she taught.

Her feminism, Lopach says, was of a type that might be called essentialist: she believed that women and men were different and would thus act&mdashand vote&mdashdifferently. Sure enough, anecdotal evidence (in the absence of polling data) supports the idea that Montana&rsquos women did turn out to vote for Rankin. But, once it came time to govern, she found that constituents&rsquo desires came down to a lot more than gender. &ldquoShe was a cantankerous, outspoken person and she was really bitter, she said, that women voted just like men,&rdquo Lopach says. &ldquoHer vote [against war in 1917] was based on her understanding of what it meant to be a woman voting. She had no choice but to vote against war.&rdquo

Rankin, as the only woman in Congress, was inevitably drawn into the role of representing all women&mdasheven as she, and the nation, discovered that women did not all want the same thing.

&ldquoI don&rsquot think we should overlook the importance of the fact that when you&rsquore the only one, as Rankin was, it is harder to shed that oh-my-goodness,&rdquo says Luckowski. &ldquoWhen you&rsquore the only one it&rsquos hard to become a good legislator, because everyone&rsquos always looking at you.&rdquo


100th Anniversary of the First Woman to Serve in the United States Congress

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Jeannette Rankin becoming the first woman to serve as a Member of Congress. She was elected in November 1916, by the state of Montana, to the U.S. House of Representatives, and began her term March 4, 1917. She was elected four years before women had the right to vote nationally and blazed a trail followed by more than 300 women who have served as a U.S. Representatives, Delegates, or Senators.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed upon her election in 1916. “But I won’t be the last.”

Jeannette Rankin learned how to work hard early in life, with her mother as a teacher and her father as a rancher. She attended Montana State University, New York School of Philanthropy, and the University of Washington and tried several occupations before going into the political arena and realizing her passion for the women’s suffrage movement.

As the first woman member in Congress, Rankin stood on the front lines to bring attention to the national suffrage fight. She advocated the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage.

During her two-year term in the House she voted against President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany, created legislation for women’s rights and helped pass the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote.

Later, at close to 60 years of age, she began a second term in the House representing Montana’s first district. She was the only Member of Congress to vote against America’s involvement in WWII, and after receiving much criticism she did not run for re-election in 1942, ending her political career.

Her 90th birthday in 1970 was celebrated in the Rayburn House Office Building with a reception and dinner. At the time of her death, on May 18, 1973, in Carmel, California, Rankin was considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.

Upon her death, Rankin left a portion of her Georgia estate to assist unemployed women workers. Her personal assistant along with friends established a foundation, chartered in 1976, which has been providing scholarships to low-income women, aged 30 and over, helping them succeed through education.

In 1985, a bronze statue of Jeannette Rankin was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Montana and stands in Emancipation Hall of the U.S Capitol Visitor’s Center.

159 Cong. Rec. H938 - Commemorating the Legacy of Jeannette Rankin
PDF Details

99 Stat. 1932 - Jeannette Rankin--Statue Placement in Capitol Rotunda
PDF Details

S. Doc. 112-9 - Nineteenth Amendment - Women's Suffrage Rights
PDF Details


Early in the afternoon on May 21, 1919, Representative James Robert Mann of Illinois called up the first measure of the 66th Congress (1919–1921), House Joint Resolution 1. Widely known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, H.J. Res. 1 was named for one of America’s foremost women’s rights champions.


Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to U.S. Congress, assumes office - HISTORY

U.S. Representatives including Nita Lowey, Pat . (Oct 8, 1991)
by Maureen Keating, photographer
National Women’s History Museum
Someone had to be First Heading
National Women’s History Museum

Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. A Republican, she won her election on August 29, 1916 to occupy one of Montana's two at-large seats. Rankin entered Congress three years before all women in the United States had the right to vote.

Jeannette Rankin / Library of Congress (Aug 1, 1916)
by Unknown
National Women’s History Museum

Rankin presented her credentials and claimed her seat on April 2, 1917.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed, “but I won’t be the last.”

Credential of Jeannette Rankin / National Archi. (Dec 4, 1916)
by The State of Montana
National Women’s History Museum

Rankin worked as a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her organizing efforts yielded Montana women the right to vote in 1914. Candidate Rankin promised to address social welfare issues and advocate for a constitutional amendment to grant voting rights to women.

Rankin warned constituents that she opposed US involvement in World War I. And when the time came, she voted against it.

Jeannette Rankin / Library of Congress (Feb 27, 1917)
by Bain News Services
National Women’s History Museum

Montana's voters turned her out of office after one term. She returned for a second term in 1941.

“No one will pay any attention to me this time,” Rankin proclaimed after her victory. “There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected.”

I’m No Lady I’m a Member of Congress Heading
National Women’s History Museum

1917-1934

The 19th amendment's ratification in 1920 meant that, for the first time, women across the country could not only vote but also run for office. Four women took seats in Congress in 1921. One of them, Mae Ella Nolan of California, became the first woman to chair a congressional committee.

Rebecca Felton
National Women’s History Museum

America's first female senator, Rebecca Felton served for just 24 hours after Georgia’s governor appointed her to fill the remainder of a term.

Alice Robertson of Oklahoma became the second woman elected to the House of Representatives during a regular election.

Alice Robertson / Library of Congress (Jun 21, 1921)
by National Photo Company
National Women’s History Museum

Robertson was also the first woman to preside over a session of the House. Ironically, Robertson opposed woman's suffrage. Yet she was assigned to the Committee on Woman Suffrage.

Her reputation for supporting veterans helped her into office. But her opposition to the World War I Veterans Bonus Bill led to her departure after one term.

Women of the 71st Congress / Library of Congress (1929)
National Women’s History Museum

The first generation of congresswomen arrived without experience in elected office. However, many came of age during the Progressive Era. They fought for women’s voting rights, public health, and against child labor. Though lacking official experience, they knew politics.

Time Covers - The 20S (Apr 23, 1928)
LIFE Photo Collection

Ruth Hanna McCormick served as the head of the Republican Women’s National Executive committee before taking her House seat in 1929.

McCormick went on to become the first woman to manage a Presidential campaign. In 1940 she led Thomas E. Dewey's campaign for the Republican nomination.

Speakeasies (1933)
by Margaret Bourke-White
LIFE Photo Collection

Women members demonstrated early on that they would not agree on every issue. For example, Prohibition was enacted under pressure from the largely female temperance movement. By the 1930s, rising public sentiment demanded its repeal. Female congresswomen split over the question in 1933. Some cited moral grounds to keep alcohol illegal. Others voted for repeal to stimulate the flagging economy.

Impromptu meeting of only women Chairman of Con. (Jul 23, 1937)
by Harris & Ewing
National Women’s History Museum

The Great Depression and support for or against New Deal policies proved to be the most significant factor for women retaining their seats in the 1930s. Roosevelt’s majorities swept Republican women out and Democratic women in.

Senator Hattie Caraway and Representatives Caroline O’Day and Mary Norton each chaired committees in 1939. All were Democrats.

1935-1954

Thirty six women entered Congress from 1935 to 1954. They arrived with more experience than their predecessors, and several rose to influence. They took seats on prestigious committees including Agriculture, Armed Services, Banking and Currency, and Judiciary. Five served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, a key post both before and after the US entered World War II. Their leadership came during a tumultuous period that included expanding government social programs, a world war, and the start of the Cold War.

Women Members of House of Representatives 1940 / Library of Congress (Mar 6, 1940)
by Harris & Ewing, photographer
National Women’s History Museum

First elected to the House in 1925, Edith Nourse Rogers served 18 terms until her death in 1961. A volunteer nursing assistant during World War I, she spent a lifetime advocating for veterans. She introduced the funding that created the veterans' hospital system. And she secured pensions for army nurses.

(May 1945)
by Marie Hansen
LIFE Photo Collection

After US entry into World War II, Rogers introduced a bill creating the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The WAAC measure allowed up to 150,000 women to volunteer for military service. In 1942, a new law granted women official military status in the Army. Soon after, women joined other uniformed services including the Navy (WAVEs), Air Force (WASPs), and Coast Guard (SPARs).

Women's Army Corps Wedding Celebration (circa 1944)
by Photographer Unknown
National Women’s History Museum

In 1948, Margaret Chase Smith's Women's Armed Forces Integration Act permanently included women in the military.

(1944)
by Marie Hansen
LIFE Photo Collection

Women legislators during the post-war period focused less on traditional women's issues than their predecessors. Many minimized gender distinction, insisting that they represented all of their constituents, not just women.

Women of the 83rd Congress / National Archives and Records Administration (1953)
National Women’s History Museum

Following the war, the US set an expansive foreign policy agenda with the involvement of key congresswomen. Emily Taft Douglas advocated for establishment of a post-war United Nations. Chase Going Woodhouse pushed for the Bretton Woods Agreements, creating the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Edna Kelly, head of the European Affairs Subcommittee on the Foreign Affairs panel, backed creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Margaret Chase Smith Conscience Quote (Feb 20, 2017)
by National Women's History Museum
National Women’s History Museum

Margaret Chase Smith developed a reputation for independence. During the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy's red scare, she vocally denounced him in her "Declaration of Conscience" address. Although she did not mention McCarthy by name, her meaning was unmistakable. She also took her colleagues to task for condoning the permissive context in which McCarthyism was allowed to flourish.

1955-1976

The United States experienced great social upheaval between 1955 and 1976 as marginalized groups protested inequities and challenged the government to legislate equality.

Women of the 89th Congress / National Archives and Records Administration (1965)
National Women’s History Museum

The thirty nine women who entered Congress during this period were challenging in their own ways. They were less deferential to tradition and prioritized action over fitting in. Many were reformers who championed causes including civil rights and women’s rights and supported Vietnam War protesters.

In 1964, Patsy Takemoto Mink, from Hawaii, became the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress. Mink championed women’s issues, including passage of the Women’s Education Equity Act and co-sponsorship of Title IX.

Congresswoman Patsy Mink
by Ralph Crane
LIFE Photo Collection
Title IX (Jun 30, 2015)
by NWHM
National Women’s History Museum

Mink’s principled stance against the Vietnam War set her at odds with her military-dependent district.

“It was such a horrible thought to have this war that it really made no difference to me that I had a military constituency. It was a case of living up to my own views and my own conscience. . . . There was no way in which I could compromise my views on how I felt about it.”

Anti-Vietnam War Pin (1970)
by circa
National Women’s History Museum

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress. Representing the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, Chisholm was known as "Fighting Shirley" for her passionate advocacy for her poor and minority constituents.

Shirley Chisholm Campaign Poster / Library of Congress (1972)
National Women’s History Museum

Chisholm made gender a campaign issue in her successful 1968 election. "There were Negro men in office here before I came in five years ago, but they didn't deliver."

Women's Rights (Aug 26, 1970)
by John Olson
LIFE Photo Collection

Taking a cue from the Civil Rights movement, a women’s liberation movement began in the 1960s. The movement consisted of a series of protests and campaigns aimed at securing women full legal, economic, vocational, educational, and social rights and opportunities for women, equal to those of men.

Bella Abzug / Library of Congress (1971 - 1976)
National Women’s History Museum

Bella Abzug emerged as a symbol of the Women’s Rights movement. Elected to the House in 1971, she ran on an antiwar and pro–feminist platform. She wrote the first version of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited discrimination against women by banks in lending. She also introduced groundbreaking legislation aimed at increasing the rights of lesbians and gays.

Bella Abzug (Apr 1972)
by Leonard Mccombe
LIFE Photo Collection

Abzug’s political aide Marilyn Marcosson recollected, “Bella was like the congresswoman for every woman in the world."

1977-Now

Women's progress entering Congress in the 1970s mirrored women’s larger efforts to break into professional fields. The majority of new congresswomen elected after 1976 proved themselves first in state legislatures. Several had held state executive office positions or been mayors of large cities. Some had federal experience ranging from US Ambassador to Cabinet Secretary. Their committee assignments expanded to include the Budget, Finance, Commerce, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence Committees. Though they had more power than any prior generation of congresswomen, the recognized their shared perspectives as women. And the Congresswomen’s Caucus convened its first meeting on April 19, 1977.

Women senators seated around a coffee table / Library of Congress (Jan 1997)
by Maureen Keating, photographer
National Women’s History Museum

An increasing number of women entered office with young families in tow. They faced the challenge of balancing a political career with family life. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who served from 1972 to 1979, was the first sitting member of Congress to give birth in office. Burke's daughter was born in 1973. Burke was both celebrated and reviled in the press.

Yvonne Braithwait Burk (Oct 1972)
by Bill Eppridge
LIFE Photo Collection

“If you ran for Congress at that time and you were a woman, everything about you was always open to the press. Your life was an open book,” she remembered. “It was unusual for a woman who was in business or an elective office to talk about having family and being able to carry out their duties. I, personally, have always felt that women have a right to choose what they want to do.”

The 1970s saw many firsts. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, born in Havana, Cuba, was the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. She was first elected in 1989 during a special election. She served as the chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the 112th Congress.

President Barack Obama signs S.614 / Obama White House (Jul 1, 2009)
by Pete Souza
National Women’s History Museum

Ros-Lehtinen, pictured third from the right, sponsored legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The WASP was established during World War II, and from 1942 to 1943, more than a thousand women joined, flying sixty million miles of non-combat military missions.

Carol Mosely-Braun
by National Women's History Museum

Carol Mosely-Braun was the first African American woman elected to the Senate, serving one term from 1992 to 1999. Mosely-Braun, who had held local offices in Chicago, was motivated to run by the spectacle of the US Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas and the treatment of his accuser Anita Hill.

She was one of four women Senators elected in what became known as "The Year of the Woman."

Senator Barbara Mikulski standing with women senatorial candidates / Library of Congress (Jul 1992)
by Laura Patterson, photographer
National Women’s History Museum

The 1992 election shifted US politics. More women ran for office in 1992 than ever before in US history, earning it the nickname: the “Year of the Woman”. Four of the eleven women Senate candidates won their races as did 47 of the record 106 women running for the House. After the election, women made up 11% of Congressional membership, a historic high point.

U.S. Representatives including Nita Lowey, Pat Schroeder, Patsy Mink, Jolene Unsoeld, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen walking by the U.S. Capitol on their way to the Senate / Library of Congress
(Oct 8, 1991)
by Maureen Keating, photographer
National Women’s History Museum

A changing political landscape catapulted more women into office. As the Cold War ended, the nation’s attention turned inward. Voters worried over the prolonged economic recession, failing schools, and rising health care costs as well as environmental issues and the AIDS crisis. Popular perceptions that women were better on domestic issues combined with increased fundraising among women’s political action groups, such as NOW, Emily’s List, and the Women’s Campaign Fund, swept women into office.

Deborah D. Pryce / US House of Representatives
National Women’s History Museum

Deborah Pryce was one of the few Republican women elected to the House in the Year of the Women. She rose through leadership to become the first woman ever to serve as the Republican Conference Chair, which she did in the 108th and 109th Congresses.

President Barack Obama meets with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi / Obama White House (Jul 31, 2014)
by Pete Souza
National Women’s History Museum

The 1992 elections inaugurated a decade of gains for women in Congress in both their number and seniority. These gains were capped by the election of Representative Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House in 2007. She became the first woman to serve as Speaker. The second position in Presidential succession, after the Vice President.

Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues 115th Congress (Jan 2017)
National Women’s History Museum

Three hundred eighteen women have assumed congressional seats over the past one hundred years. Half of them were elected after 1977. They legislated on behalf of their principles and constituents. Though still a small percentage of Congress, they have steadily risen in number and up the leadership ranks. They exert influence in every aspect of governance.

From the first to the most recent, these women demonstrated that a woman’s place is not only in the House . . . but also the Senate.

Credits

On behalf of National Women's History Museum

Elizabeth L. Maurer - Director of Program

Jeanette Patrick - Outreach Program Manager

Elizabeth L. Maurer - Director of Program

Delli Carpini, M. X., & Williams, B. A. (1993). The Year of the Woman? Candidates, Votes and the 1992 Elections. Political Science Quarterly, 108 29-36. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/22

Gertzog, Irwin N. 1995. Congressional women: their recruitment, integration, and behavior. Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Praeger.

Gertzog, Irwin N. 2004. Women and power on Capitol Hill: reconstructing the Congressional Women's Caucus. Boulder, Colo. [u.a.]: Lynne Rienner.

History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Women in Congress, 1917–2006. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007. “Women in Congress,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibition-and-Publications/WIC/Women-in-Congress/

History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Historical Data,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Historical-Data---Nav/

McKeon, Nancy. "Women in the House get a restroom." The Washington Post. July 28, 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/women-in-the-house-get-a-restroom/2011/07/28/gIQAFgdwfI_story.html?utm_term=.3e592454bb93.

Palmer, Barbara, and Dennis Michael Simon. 2008. Breaking the political glass ceiling: women and congressional elections. New York: Routledge.


9 Facts About Jeannette Rankin, the First Woman Elected to Congress

In 1916, four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the nationwide right to vote, Montana suffragist Jeannette Rankin—who was born on this day in 1880—became the first woman elected to the United States Congress. In her later years, she also led important crusades for peace and women's rights.

1. SHE WANTED TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Jeannette Rankin was born on June 11, 1880 on a ranch outside Missoula in what was then the Montana Territory. The oldest of seven children, she attended the local public schools and then studied biology at the University of Montana. After graduating from college in 1902, she tried a variety of jobs, including schoolteacher and seamstress. But Rankin began to sense her calling when she went to Massachusetts to care for her younger brother Wellington, who was studying at Harvard and had fallen ill. He recovered quickly, which allowed Rankin to travel around Boston and New York, where she saw the extreme suffering of those living in the slums, packed into unsafe, unsanitary tenements, while the wealthy lived the high life a few blocks away. A few years later, Rankin went to San Francisco to visit an uncle and witnessed the devastation that the 1906 earthquake had wrought in the city. Moved to do something, she went to work in a settlement house (a neighborhood center in a poor area where middle-class Progressives offered social programs) on Telegraph Hill. Rankin had seen poverty and misery in New York and Boston, but in San Francisco, she saw people dedicated to doing something about it. Now she knew what she wanted to do: become a social worker.

In 1908, she moved to New York City to attend the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia School of Social Work), and after receiving her social work degree moved to Washington state, where she worked at a children’s home in Spokane and another in Seattle. But continuously watching children suffer wore Rankin down, as did the sense that her work with individuals made little difference compared to the decisions made by the men in downtown offices who ran the agency. Rankin realized that perhaps social work didn’t offer the best path to forcing substantive change, so she turned her eye to policy.

Rankin returned to school at the University of Washington, where she read one day in 1910 that she could acquire free posters advocating women’s suffrage from the school’s College Equal Suffrage League. Rankin plastered the posters all over town, and her enthusiasm and work ethic caught the eye of a political science professor named Adella M. Parker, who suggested Rankin become a part of the campaign for women’s suffrage in Washington, which would be on the state’s ballot that November.

Women won the vote in Washington, and Rankin, invigorated, returned to Montana, where she joined the Montana Equal Franchise Society and gave speeches about accessing the vote. On February 2, 1911 [PDF], she spoke before the all-male Montana legislature, becoming the first woman to do so. Urging them to grant women the right to vote, she evoked the idea of “taxation without representation,” and suggested women belong in public service as well as in the home, arguing [PDF]: “It is beautiful and right that a mother should nurse her child through typhoid fever, but it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which typhoid resulted.”

Rankin began traveling as a professional suffrage activist, giving speeches and organizing campaigns in New York, California, and Ohio before returning to fight for the vote in Montana, where women’s suffrage passed the legislature in 1913 and a popular referendum the following year. Rankin then took a position as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, advocating for the vote in several states from 1913 to 1914.

2. SHE RAN A GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGN TO WIN A SEAT IN CONGRESS.

Rankin decided to run for Congress in 1916. She came from a family familiar with public service: Her father had been involved in local politics before his death, and her brother Wellington was a rising star in the state Republican party (he would be elected Montana’s attorney general in 1920). Wellington urged his sister to run and served as her campaign manager. His political connections plus her experience in grassroots organizing proved a winning combination.

In 1916, Montana had two at-large congressional districts, meaning the entire state voted for both representatives rather than dividing districts based on geography. One of Montana’s Democratic congressmen was retiring, and Rankin launched a statewide campaign for his seat. She took campaigning seriously, later recalling that she “traveled 6000 miles by train and over 1500 miles by automobile” during her bid. This was in marked contrast to the “seven mediocre men” she faced in the Republican primary, who, she said, “had too much dignity [to] stand on the street corner and talk.”

She beat those “mediocre men” handily in the August 1916 primary—surpassing the second-place finisher by 7000 votes—but the Montana GOP still had little enthusiasm for her candidacy, expending scant effort or money on her behalf. Nevertheless, Rankin put together a progressive platform: She advocated for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day for women, transparency from Congress, and policies to protect children. She ran a non-partisan grassroots campaign that worked to mobilize all of Montana’s women, and which included voter “registration teas” across the state at which women were registered to vote by a notary public.

3. THE MEDIA HAD NO INTEREST IN HER—AND THEN THEY WERE OBSESSED.

Rankin came in second in Montana’s at-large Congressional race, meaning she secured one of the two available seats. But in those days ballots were counted by hand, which took a long time. Montana newspapers—likely not taking her candidacy entirely seriously—initially reported that Rankin had lost. It wasn’t until three days later that the papers had to change their tune: Miss Rankin was headed to Congress.

Suddenly journalists across the country were clamoring to interview and photograph the nation’s first congresswoman. Photographers camped outside her house until Rankin had to issue a statement saying she was no longer allowing photos and would “not leave the house while there is a cameraman on the premises.” Before the election, Rankin’s team had sent The New York Times biographical material about their candidate, only to have the Times return it and run a mocking editorial urging Montanans to vote for Rankin because “if she is elected to Congress she will improve that body aesthetically, for she is said to be ‘tall, with a wealth of red hair.’” A month later, the paper was profiling her more seriously, reporting on her suffrage work and noting that she had “light brown hair—not red.” Of course, due to her gender, a profile on Rankin could not be limited to political topics. The Times also reported on her “Famous Lemon Pie,” and informed readers that “She dances well and makes her own hats, and sews.” Other newspapers took a similar tone.

4. SHE VOTED AGAINST ENTERING WORLD WAR I …

Rankin’s first week in Congress began auspiciously, but soon became contentious. On April 2, 1917, the day of her swearing in, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage honored Rankin with a breakfast, and she gave a brief speech from the balcony of NAWSA headquarters. Then the suffragists escorted her to the Capitol in a parade of flag-bedecked cars. When she arrived at her office, it was filled with flowers sent from well-wishers, and she chose a yellow and purple bouquet to carry onto the House floor. Once at the House chamber, congressmen treated her to a round of applause, and she was sworn in to cheers. The watching wife of a Texas congressman recorded in her journal that “When her name was called, the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice.”

But the day was soon to grow serious. That evening, President Wilson appeared before Congress and asked them to pass a declaration of war against Germany. The Germans had recently resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and though Wilson had been reelected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” the president now believed the time for military action had come. Two days later the Senate passed a declaration of war with only six dissenting votes, and the House would convene to vote the following day.

Rankin was uncertain about what to do. She was a pacifist but was under pressure from her brother, Wellington, who urged her to issue a “man’s vote” (i.e., in favor of war), telling her that anything else was career suicide. Some suffragists were also lobbying her for a “yes” vote they believed a “no” would make women look too sensitive for politics. In the early morning of April 6, after hours of passionate speeches, the House voted: Rankin failed to answer during the first roll call, and when her name was called a second time, she rose and said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Forty-nine Congressmen joined her in dissenting, but the declaration of war passed the House anyway. Walking home, Wellington told Rankin she would likely never be reelected, and her vote did earn her copious negative press coverage. But Rankin did not regret her choice. Years later, she commented, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

5. … AND THE PRESS CALLED HER VOTE “A FIT OF FEMALE HYSTERIA.”

For many, Rankin’s rejection of war was a sign of her excess feminine emotion, and newspapers reported that she had wept, trembled, and even swooned while delivering her vote. She was “overcome by her ordeal,” declared The New York Times. The humor magazine Judge took issue not with her vote but with her apparent manner: “It was because she hesitated that she was lost. […] If she had boldly, stridently voted ‘no’ in true masculine form, she would have been admired and applauded.”

According to eyewitnesses, however, Rankin did not sob, faint, or otherwise display any “feminine weakness.” However, several of her fellow lawmakers did weep. Suffragist Maud Wood Park, who watched from the gallery, noted that “She may have shed a few tears before or after she voted but if so, they were not evident in the gallery whereas the Democratic floor leader, Claude Kitchin, the nth degree of the he-man type, broke down and wept both audibly and visibly during his speech against the resolution.” New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia later told reporters that though he did not notice Rankin crying, his vision had been obscured by his own tears. “It was no more a sign of weakness for Miss Rankin to weep, if she did, than it was for Congressman Kitchin to weep,” suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt told The New York Times.

6. SHE FOUGHT TO MAKE WOMEN’S CITIZENSHIP INDEPENDENT OF THEIR HUSBANDS’.

Passed on March 2, 1907 [PDF], the Expatriation Act stripped any American woman who married a non-citizen of her own American citizenship. In contrast, a non-citizen woman who married an American man automatically gained American citizenship. Following the legal tradition of coverture, the Expatriation Act of 1907 asserted that, upon marriage, a wife’s legal identity was collapsed into that of her husband. This act understandably caused problems for many American women, but the Supreme Court upheld the law in 1915, ruling that “marriage of an American woman with a foreigner is tantamount to voluntary expatriation.” In 1917, Rankin introduced a bill to amend the Expatriation Act to protect married women’s citizenship. Morris Sheppard, a Democrat from Texas, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

But by this time the United States had entered World War I, and anti-foreigner sentiment—especially anti-German sentiment—was at a fever pitch. During a series of hearings before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, congressmen and other men presenting testimony showed little empathy for American women who would marry foreigners, and expressed worry that allowing such women to retain their citizenship would allow them to aid or protect German spies.

Rankin spoke assertively in the face of derision from fellow lawmakers. When Representative Harold Knutson, a Republican from Minnesota, remarked, “The purpose of this bill, as I understand it, is to allow the American woman to ‘eat her cake and still have it,’” Rankin coolly replied, “No we submit an American man has the right to citizenship, regardless of his marriage, and that the woman has the same right.” But despite Rankin’s forceful defense of her bill, and testimony from women about its necessity, it was tabled by the committee.

It would take several more years for women’s citizenship to be protected in the same way as men’s. In 1922, after the war had ended and the 19th Amendment had given women the vote, Representative John L. Cable from Ohio sponsored the “Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act.” The law allowed any American woman who married a foreigner to retain her citizenship, providing her new husband was eligible for American citizenship himself. (This caveat meant that American women who married Asian men still lost their citizenship, as Asians were not legally eligible for naturalization. Chinese immigrants, for example, gained access to naturalized citizenship in 1943, while all race-based requirements for naturalization were eliminated in 1952.) In 1931, Congress introduced a series of bills removing the final restrictions on married women retaining their citizenship.

7. YOU DIDN’T NEED TO WATCH YOUR MOUTH AROUND HER.

Rankin had seen things: During her time as a social worker she had worked in tenement houses and slums, and she spent two months in the New York City night courts, primarily serving prostitutes. But the men she encountered often tiptoed around certain subjects and words. One euphemistic discussion with male lawmakers about “communicable disease” prompted Rankin to exclaim, “If you mean syphilis, why don’t you say so?”

Another time, during a House hearing about women’s suffrage, a Dr. Lucien Howe testified that women should not be given the vote because the infant mortality rate is too high in the U.S., and so women must devote all their attention to taking care of children and not waste any on politics. He ranted about the number of children who become blind because their mothers pass gonorrhea on to them, and because the mothers lack the “intelligence” to treat the babies’ eyes with silver nitrate drops. Rankin took him to task:

Rankin: How do you expect women to know this disease when you do not feel it proper to call it by its correct name? Do they not in some states have legislation which prevents women knowing these diseases, and only recently after the women’s work for political power were women admitted into medical schools. You yourself, from your actions, believe it is not possible for women to know that names of these diseases. (Pause.)

Dr. Howe: I did not like to use the word ‘gonorrhea . ’

Rankin: Do you think anything should shock a woman as much as blind children? Do you not think they ought to be hardened enough to stand the name of a disease when they must stand the fact that children are blind?

8. SHE WORKED TO SAVE THE LIVES OF MOTHERS AND BABIES.

When Rankin was first elected, the magazine Town Development dubbed her the “Babies’ advocate”—an image she certainly cultivated. To avoid alienating voters put off by a female candidate, Rankin presented herself as a traditional, feminine woman, a mother for the nation’s children, saying during her campaign that “There are hundreds of men to care for the nation’s tariff and foreign policy and irrigation projects. But there isn’t a single woman to look after the nation’s greatest asset: our children.”

A 1918 report from the Children’s Bureau on maternal and infant mortality rates shone a harsh light on that reality: As of 1916, over 235,000 infants died per year in the United States, while 16,000 mothers died in childbirth. Many of those deaths were preventable, but American women, especially in rural areas and among impoverished families, often lacked adequate prenatal and obstetric care. Rankin worked with the Children’s Bureau to develop pioneering legislation, H.R. 12634, that would address these issues: The bill proposed cooperation between the states and federal government to provide education in maternal and infant hygiene, funding for visiting nurses in rural areas and hospital care for new mothers, and consultation centers for mothers. It would have become the nation’s first federal welfare program.

Unfortunately, the bill never made it to the floor. However, after Rankin had left the House, Senator Morris Sheppard and Representative Horace Towner resubmitted a (somewhat watered-down) version of her legislation in 1920. Thanks largely to the urging of women’s groups—who now represented millions of new voters—President Harding endorsed it, and Rankin lobbied for the offspring of her legislation while working for the National Consumers League. President Harding signed the Sheppard-Towner Act into law on November 23, 1921. (Unfortunately, thanks to opposition from the American Medical Association and other powerful interests, it wasn’t renewed by Congress in 1927 and was defunded in 1929.)

9. SHE SPENT THE BULK OF HER LIFE AS A PEACE ACTIVIST.

After Rankin's election, the Montana legislature divided the state geographically into two congressional districts. This made reelection essentially impossible for Rankin, as she lived in the Democrat-heavy western district, cut off from her base of farmers in the eastern part of the state. In order to be able to campaign statewide, Rankin ran for the Senate in 1918, instead of running for reelection to the House. She lost the Republican primary and entered the general election as a candidate for the National Party, but fell far short of the votes needed to win. Rankin left Congress in 1919 after serving a single term.

After leaving Congress, Rankin worked for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom for several years and then co-founded the Georgia Peace Society. She also spent five months in 1929 working for the Women’s Peace Union, a radical pacifist organization that wanted to eliminate war by passing a constitutional amendment rendering it illegal. But they were too extreme even for Rankin, who moved on to the National Council for the Prevention of War. Then, in 1940, she decided to take another stab at politics, running to reclaim her Montana congressional seat. Thanks to endorsements from prominent Republicans like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, she won, rejoining Congress over 20 years after finishing her first term.

But as fate would have it, Rankin found herself, once again, in the position of voting on a declaration of war. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress gathered to officially declare war on Japan. Once again, Rankin voted “nay”—the only lawmaker in either house of Congress to do so. When she declared, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” a chorus of hisses and boos arose from the House gallery. Journalists mobbed her as she tried to leave the chambers, and Rankin hid in the House cloakroom until Capitol policemen arrived to escort her safely back to her office.

There was no way for Rankin to recover politically, and she declined to seek a second term. But she continued in peace activism into her old age, leading thousands of women—called the Jeannette Rankin Brigade—in a protest against the Vietnam War in 1968. Then in her nineties, Rankin was contemplating another run for the House when she died in 1973.

Additional Sources: Interview with Jeannette Rankin, Suffragists Oral History Project, University of California, 1972 “Jeannette Rankin, Progressive-Isolationist.” Doctoral Dissertation, Princeton University, 1959 “Visuality in Woman Suffrage Discourse & the Construction of Jeannette Rankin as National Symbol of Enfranchised American Womanhood,” Master’s Thesis, Empire State College SUNY, 2011.


Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, serving two separate terms representing Montana. She injected the first woman’s voice into national political debates. A committed pacifist, Rankin was the only member of Congress to oppose entry of the United States into both World Wars.

Rankin was active in the woman suffrage movement in the West, and campaigned for election to Congress after her state gave women the right to vote. In Congress she sponsored legislation to provide federal voting rights and health services to women. Her anti-war vote in 1917 cost her her office, and she devoted much of the remainder of her life to pacifist causes.

She held leadership roles in the Women’s Inter-national League for Peace and Freedom and other groups. In 1940 she ran again for Congress on an isolationist platform and in 1941 was the sole Member to oppose the declaration of war on Japan.

She later traveled extensively, studying with Ghandi, among others. She was, at age 86, a proud marcher in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade in the March on Washington to oppose the Vietnam War.

Year Honored: 1993

Birth: 1880 - 1973

Born In: Montana

Achievements: Government

Educated In: Montana, New York, Washington, United States of America

Schools Attended: New York School of Philanthropy, University of Montana, University of Washington

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The Nineteenth Amendment: Woman Suffrage

In 1916 Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a suffragist and pacifist, became the first woman elected to Congress. As a member of the House, Rankin pushed for woman suffrage, opening the first congressional debate ever held on the subject. Congress approved a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage in 1919. Ratified by three-fourths of the states, it became the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Rankin is also noted as the only member of Congress to have opposed U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II.

Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the Nation at this time? It would be strange indeed if the women of this country through all these years had not developed an intelligence, a feeling, a spiritual force peculiar to themselves, which they hold in readiness to give to the world.


How Many Women Have Served in Congress?

Mariana Villa was an HNN intern and a student at Buena Vista University. This article was first published in 2012. It was updated in 2016 by intern Katherine DeFonzo.


Montana representative Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Currently there are 108 women in Congress. Eighty-eight are serving in the House of Representatives and 20 are in the Senate.

Some simple math -- dividing 108 by 313, multiplying the result by 100, and rounding to the nearest tenth -- equals 34.5. This means that out of all the women that have ever been elected to Congress, 34.5 percent, or approximately one-third, are in office today.

Which leads to the question, how exactly did women make it to Congress?

1848 is perhaps a good year to start. It was the year when a group of women met at Seneca Falls, New York to participate in a two-day assembly organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This notable gathering marked, in many ways, the beginning of a 72-year struggle to grant women the right to vote.

Victory, however, came before ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. Her name was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to Congress.

After being officially sworn into office in 1917, Rankin declared, “I may be the first woman member in Congress, but I won’t be the last.” An avid supporter of women’s suffrage, the Republican Representative from Montana actively worked towards her cause, creating a Committee on Woman Suffrage and opening the first House debate on this subject in January 1918. Aside from being a suffragist, Rankin was an avowed pacifist.

When President Woodrow Wilson presented a resolution to declare war on Germany, she was one of the fifty House members to vote against it the resolution passed with a 374-50 vote. In 1941, she would again vote against U.S. participation in war, this time in World War II. Out of the 389 members of the House, she was the only one to do so, making her extremely unpopular. After her term was over, she would not run for re-election in either House. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of her life she continued to advocate pacifism, leading the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” in 1968 in protest of the Vietnam War.

The first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia. Sworn in on November 21, 1922, the 87-year-old’s term in office lasted only one day. The wife of former U.S. Representative William Henry Felton, she had a background in politics and civic affairs. Through her writings -- where she advocated women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and public education, and expressed deeply racist attitudes towards African Americans -- Felton became an influential figure in Georgia politics.

Her influence, along with the sudden death of Senator Tom Watson in 1922 gave Georgia Governor Thomas Hardwick an opportunity to redeem himself for his earlier opposition to the 19th Amendment. Appointed to Watson’s seat on an ad interim basis on Oct. 3, Felton was officially sworn into her 24-hour post on November 21 during a special session called by President Warren Harding.

The first female to be elected to the Senate was Hattie Wyatt Caraway, a native of Arkansas. After Caraway’s husband, Senator Thaddeus Caraway, died in November 1931, she was offered her husband’s empty seat by Governor Harvey Parnell. After fulfilling her husband’s remaining fourteen months, she ran for re-election and won by a landslide in 1933.

A practice, often referred to as the “widow’s mandate,” the “widow’s succession,” or the “matrimonial connection,” has had an essential role in allowing women into Congress. For example, out of the ninety-five women who served between 1917 and 1976, thirty-four (or one-third) were widows who were either elected or appointed to their late husbands’ seats. This practice began with California Representative Mae Ella Nolan, who succeeded her husband in Congress, serving from 1923 to 1925.

Having acquired extensive experience from their spouses’ careers, these congressional widows often made able replacements for their late husbands. It should be noted though that the majority of them often served for one term or less, primarily seen as temporary placeholders until a replacement, generally male, could be found. Of course, there were notable exceptions, like Edith Nourse Rogers, who assumed her husband’s seat in 1925and remained there until 1960, making her the longest-serving woman in congressional history.

Hinging on this precedent, the doors of Congress were opened to women like Mary T. Norton, a representative from New Jersey who advocated the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This act, which was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, called for a 40-hour work week, outlawed child labor, and set minimum wage at 25 cents an hour. She would serve twelve terms in the House, from 1925 to 1951.

Women like Maine senator Margaret Chase Smith, whose dying husband told voters, “I know of no one else who has the full knowledge of my ideas and plans or is as well-qualified as she is, to carry on these ideas or my unfinished work for the district,” was elected to his seat in 1940. Though she believed that women had a political role to assume, she refused to make an issue of her gender in seeking higher office, and chose not to limit herself to “women’s issues.”

Smith would leave a powerful legacy behind her. She was first female senator from her state, the first female to serve in both Houses, and in 1964 she became the first woman to run for president on a majority party ticket. During her career, she gained renown for being a tough legislator and left her mark in foreign policy and military affairs. On June 1, 1950, she put herself at risk of being “blacklisted” when she rose before the Senate and delivered a “Declaration of Conscience” where she denounced McCarthyism and claimed that:

“The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

1992 has been called by some the “Year of the Woman,” for it more women were elected to political office in November than ever before, five of whom joined the U.S. Senate. One these five was Carol Moseley-Braun, the second African American to be elected to the Senate since Hiram Revels in 1870 and, the first African American woman to hold this post. The first woman of color to be elected to Congress was Patsy T. Mink, a Representative from Hawaii, in 1965.

However, chronicling the influence that all elected women have had in the United States Congress is impossible to do within this mere article. Books like Women in Congress, 1917-2006 and its companion website provide an extensive history of all the women that have served in Congress since Jeannette Rankin in 1917.


American Experience

On March 4, 1917, the 65th Congress convened, with one major difference: the very first congresswoman.

Group portrait of the sixty-fifth U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. Can you find Jeannette Rankin? Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A few months into Jeannette Rankin’s 1916 campaign for one of Montana’s two at-large congressional seats, it was apparent that she was a shoe-in to become the nation’s first congresswoman. Two years earlier Rankin, 36, a Republican, had led the fight to win Montana women the right to vote. She had those votes nailed down. And it did not hurt that her popular brother was managing her campaign.

In 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Rankin campaigned right up to election night, often on horseback. She was as likely to turn up in a lumber camp or dance hall as a meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The town fathers of Cut Bank rejoiced at landing an appearance when “cities all over Montana are clamoring to secure the little lady for speaking engagements.”

In what was then a rare campaign practice, on election day, according to The New York Times, her supporters called practically everyone in Montana who had a phone. “They greeted whoever answered with a cheery: ‘Good morning! Have you voted for Jeanette Rankin?’”

Rankin speaking from the balcony of the National American Woman Suffrage Association on April 2, 1917 — the same day President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

She won big, outpolling the Republican presidential candidate by more than 25,000 votes. Her legislative priorities were a suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a reform of child labor laws. But before she could take the first step, President Woodrow Wilson called for war against Germany. Rankin was a committed pacifist. On April 6, just four days after she took her seat, Congress voted. Never mind that 49 male representatives and six senators also opposed the war. Rankin’s “no” was the one that captured headlines. “I wish to stand for my country,” she said, “But I cannot vote for war.”

The Lady from Montana seemed destined to serve just a single term. She ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, became a peace organizer and spent winters on a small farm in Georgia. But in 1940, she again persuaded Montanans to send her to Congress. She was in office when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and she again voted against war, the only member to do so. To escape outraged legislators and a mob of reporters, she barricaded herself in a phone booth until Capitol police came to her rescue.

Wrote William Allen White, renowned editor of the Emporia Gazette, “The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But Lord, it was a brave thing.”

Rankin served out the rest of her term and never ran for office again. But she did march against the Vietnam War with 5,000 women who christened themselves the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade.”

Mary Walton is the author of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot.


Watch the video: Jeannette Rankin: The First Woman Member of Congress. Unladylike2020. American Masters. PBS (May 2022).