“I may be the First woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
When you think of “women’s firsts,” who do you think of? Names like Sandra Day O’Connor (first to become a Supreme Court justice), Amelia Earhart (first to fly solo across the Atlantic), or Indira Gandhi (first and so far only to serve as Prime Minister of India), are some popular examples. [And maybe someday the first to be president will be on this list, but I digress…]
But you may not think of Jeannette Rankin, the first elected to Congress. As I hope to show on the eve of these crucial midterm elections (Vote November 6th!), Rankin should be just as well-known as these other famous firsts.
I first remember hearing of Jeannette Rankin in the charming picture book Lives of Extraordinary Women by Kathleen Krull, and occasionally saw her name pop up in history books or articles. She has been on my list of Groundbreakers to profile since I started this project, but she moved up the list this week after I listened to the WNYC podcast that questioned her sexuality.
Where does one start with Jeannette Rankin? Besides being the first woman elected to Congress, she is still the only woman elected to Congress from the state of Montana (more on that later). She was also the only member of Congress to vote against US participation in both World Wars, and one of the only suffragists elected to Congress (see US House History site). But she also had some views that seem less than stellar today. Regardless, she was a true rebel who was never afraid to speak her mind on important issues, even as late as the Vietnam War when she was in her late 80s.
Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born near Missoula, Montana in 1880, while Montana was still a territory. She was the first of six children, including a brother, Wellington Rankin, who was the attorney general of Montana and on the Montana Supreme Court. Growing up in Montana was complicated; while it was on the frontier, which meant that men and women were often equal in labor, women still did not have the right to vote or do much of anything else politically. Her worldview was much more aligned with that of big cities, where she would later end up.
After graduating from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology, Rankin moved to San Francisco and became a social worker. She then moved to New York and enrolled in what is now the Columbia University School of Social Work. Later she moved to the state of Washington where she continued in social work, attended the University of Washington, and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. After working as an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she enjoyed the victory of seeing Washington State giving women the vote in 1910. Rankin soon helped win women’s right to vote in her home state in 1914.
Rankin’s victories in the women’s suffrage movement helped propel her to victory when she ran for Congress in 1916 as a Republican, realizing in her own small way her belief that the government needed women in order to function properly. She served on the Woman Suffrage Committee, among others, introducing the Nineteenth Amendment, which was finally ratified in 1920. She proudly proclaimed, “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.”
But it was early in 1917, just after she started her term, when she entered the national stage by voting against US involvement in World War I, the first vote cast by any woman in Congress. She was part of a group of 56 members of Congress who voted against entering the war (see Collins, America’s Women). She later stated, “I felt that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” She became just as devoted to pacifism and peace for the rest of her life as she was to the suffrage movement. This stance did not help her politically, as she was not reelected in 1918, but she never shied away from what she believed (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).
Her persistence eventually paid off, as she ran for Congress again and won in 1940, when she was 60. And almost poetically, yet another war started around the time she took her seat, this time World War II. After the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Rankin was the lone no vote. She explained her vote: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send someone else.” Her decision was massively unpopular, even more so than her vote against entering the first World War more than 20 years earlier. As a result, she again served only one term, leaving Congress in 1943. The backlash to both of her no votes was somewhat ironic, as Rankin had been elected on a pacifist platform; but once Pearl Harbor was attacked, most people’s views changed.
But Rankin was hardly finished making her mark. She lectured on world peace and often traveled to India, studying the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, perhaps the world’s most famous pacifist. In 1967, at the age of 87, she led a march against the Vietnam War in Washington, consisting of five thousand women dressed in black. She thought, incredibly, of running for a third term in Congress, but died at 92 before she could entertain the possibility (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).
Rankin’s personal life was also unusual for her time. She never married, as she always wanted to remain independent (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women). More recently, some have wondered if she may have been a lesbian. There is not much to back this up other than close friendships she had with women in her lifetime. But what we can say for sure is that her life of protest and speaking out against authority set her apart from most women of her time (hear more in Nancy podcast).
Like any figure, Rankin harbored some views that would be less than popular today. Despite her devotion to women’s equality, particularly in voting, she did not extend that same level of dedication to black women. This flaw was not unique to her, as many of the early suffragist leaders were mainly looking out for white, relatively privileged women (see Constitution Center article). Additionally, a more controversial view she had, which contributed to her vote against World War II, was that Roosevelt was trying to get the US into the war, and that the attack on Pearl Harbor was provoked (see Cullen-DuPont, American Women Activists’ Writings). There are some who believe this to be true, but on the whole it is an unpopular view.
While Rankin’s name is not a household one like some of the others I named above, her legacy is still making a mark today. She is still the only woman elected to Congress from Montana, but another woman from Montana is trying to change that this election. Kathleen Williams, a Democrat, is running for Montana’s one congressional seat against incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte, best known for bodyslamming a reporter who dared ask him a question. Williams is well aware of her potentially historic campaign, stating recently that she hopes to be Rankin’s “long overdue successor” (see Missoulian article). Ironically, Rankin was elected by a more “liberal”, pacifist (frontier) Montana than exists today, but perhaps women (and men) in Montana will recognize the opportunity presented to them and make her the second woman sent to Congress from their state in more than 70 years.
Despite some flawed and controversial views, Rankin’s dedication to her efforts even in old age is admirable. She easily could have gone along with her male Republican colleagues while in the House, but she chose, as she did throughout her life, to strike out on her own. Her fierce independence is an important example to young women who may be shy to fight for causes that are meaningful to them. The lack of women in Congress is still a problem today. We will see on November 6th whether the road she started on almost a century ago will be continued.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Jeannette Rankin interesting and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.
WNYC podcast Nancy, “The First Queer Woman in Congress”: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/jeannette-rankin-united-states-of-anxiety
Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannette_Rankin
Entry on House History, Art & Archives website: https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/
America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, by Gail Collins
“Jeannette Rankin’s war”, National Constitution Center: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/jeannette-rankins-war
American Women Activists’ Writings, edited by Kathryn Cullen-DuPont
Rankin Foundation, Women’s Scholarship Fund: https://rankinfoundation.org/
Article on Kathleen Williams’ campaign for Congress in Montana: https://missoulian.com/news/local/a-unique-spin-in-democratic-congressional-candidate-forum/article_af43490d-6cfb-5c38-9833-5e2a13d891d0.html
Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, Gretchen Woelfle
A Woman in the House (and Senate), Ilene Cooper
Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience, Norma Smith