Jeannette Rankin 1880-1973
Jeannette Rankin is best known as the first woman elected to Congress. She ran in 1916 to represent her home state of Montana as a progressive Republican and served from 1917-1919. Her younger brother Wellington, later to hold statewide office in Montana himself, financed her campaign. Unusually, she ran for and won a second term more than 20 years later, in 1940, serving again from 1941-1943. To this date, Rankin remains the only woman ever elected to Congress from Montana.
Her activities in office reflected her consistent concerns: equality and better services for women, child welfare reform and an end to child labor, support for copper miners and pacifism. It was her pacifism, expressed as a vote against entry into World War I only four days after being sworn into Congress, that limited her political future. Despite concerns by some, including Carrie Chapman Catt, that Rankin’s pacifism would hurt the cause of suffrage, others, such as Alice Paul, supported her stance. While in Congress, Rankin worked on legislation that eventually led to the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women throughout the U.S. the right to vote.
In Rankin’s later, second term in office, she again voted against entry into war: this time, World War II. Years later, on January 15, 1968 she led some 5,000 members of the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” in a protest march against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Together with 15 other women, including Coretta Scott King, Rankin then presented a petition on the same topic to House Speaker (and Massachusetts Democrat) John McCormack on behalf of the Women’s Strike for Peace.
Rankin’s life encompassed both “first wave” feminism as a suffragist and the “second wave” feminism of the early 70s. As a young woman and in her older years, Rankin’s life was both adventurous and active. She participated in the March 3, 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC, prior to Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, viewed by hundreds of thousands of onlookers. She traveled widely all her life, throughout the U.S. and to such far-flung destinations as New Zealand and India. She attempted, but failed, to create a women’s commune on property she owned back in the U.S., in Georgia.
Rankin was well educated, graduating in 1902 with a bachelor’s degree in biology from what was to become the University of Montana. She spent time visiting her beloved brother Wellington Rankin, a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of both Harvard College and its Law School, in Boston, where she learned furniture design, but also toured the city’s slums. The latter experience propelled her to enroll in what became the Columbia University School of Social Work. Social work organizations claim her as an important professional. Interestingly, she practiced social work only briefly, in Spokane, Washington, subsequently enrolling in a range of courses at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In 1910 she began her career in the women’s suffrage movement, serving as a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In December of that year, she became the first woman to speak to the Montana legislature. In large part due to Rankin’s efforts, Montana enacted women’s suffrage in 1914, as did Nevada, joining nine other western states.
In addition to her legacy in Congress as a suffragist, an advocate for women and the poor, and a pacifist, Rankin left tangible benefits through her property in Georgia, which initially funded what is now the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund. The fund was established to award scholarships to help impoverished “mature” women (over 35) succeed through education. To date the fund has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships to nearly 800 women.
Rankin’s papers are housed, among other places, at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, at Harvard University. Her statue stands in National Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C. (photo, right).
Read more about Jeannette Rankin
- Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman, by James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski, 2005, University Press of Colorado, 317 pages.
- Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, by Gretchen Woelfle, 2007, Calkins Creek, 104 pages. For young adults.
- Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography, by Hannah Josephson, Bobbs-Merrill, 1974, 227 pages.
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