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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Jeannette Rankin

In this blog posting, I will discuss a chapter from my work-in-progress, Congressional Lions, involving Jeannette Pickering Rankin, the first woman elected to serve in the United States Congress.

Rankin was always an iconoclast. Born in Montana in 1880, she was the oldest of the seven children (six girls and a boy) of John Rankin and Olive Pickering. Her father was a prosperous rancher and saw-miller. She attended Missoula public schools before enrolling in the University of Montana, graduating with a biology degree in 1902. As with many women of her time, Rankin taught school and worked briefly as a seamstress. After her father died, she returned home to help care for her younger siblings.

In 1908, at age 28, she headed east to study at the New York School of Philanthropy. Later, she became a social worker in Montana and Washington state, but she grew increasingly dissatisfied with her chosen profession. In 1909, Rankin entered the University of Washington, where she became interested in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She also came under the influence of Minnie J. Reynolds Scalabrino, a prominent Colorado journalist, suffragette, and political candidate. Scalabrino was a role model for women who sought a life beyond the confines of a homemaker and appendage of her husband. Invigorated, Jeannette Rankin contemplated a public service career.

Beginning in February 1911, she lobbied the Montana state legislature to extend the franchise to women. Her activism carried her far beyond the boundaries of her native state. By 1913 and 1914, she was working as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), covering 15 states. As she gained experience and media attention, Rankin searched for a means of increasing her power and influence.

Her opportunity came in 1916 when she resolved to run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives representing Montana. It was immediately clear why Rankin chose to campaign for Congress: she believed that the House of Representatives would benefit from a feminine perspective. She noted that Congress had appropriated $300,000 to study fodder for hogs, but only a tenth of that amount to examine children’s needs. “If the hogs of the nation are ten times more important than the children, it is high time that women should make their influence felt,” she said.

She made history when, at the age of 36, she won the House seat.

During her first election, Montana allowed for at-large congressional districts. Later, however, the Montana state legislature chose to create two separate districts. Rankin, a Republican, suddenly found herself running for reelection in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Realizing that she probably would not be reelected, she opted to run for the United States Senate. She lost. Twenty-two years later, she won a second election to the House of Representatives.

In each of her congressional terms, the United States faced a choice of whether to declare war against foreign countries. As a lifelong pacifist, Rankin voted against declaring war during her first term, in 1917, as well as in her second term, in 1941. During the 1917 vote, she was one of 50 House members who opposed the United States entry into World War I. In 1941, she was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

A feminist long before such a position was fashionable, Rankin was instrumental in shepherding the Nineteenth Amendment, which allowed women to vote, through Congress. As she wryly observed, she was “the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

Jeannette Rankin all but disappeared from public view after she left Congress. She enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in 1958, when Senator John F. Kennedy singled her out in an article titled “Three Women of Courage” that he wrote for McCall’s Magazine. During the 1960s, she returned to the public stage as an effective and popular speaker against the Vietnam War. She also favored progressive reforms to make political institutions more accessible to citizens, such as removing the Electoral College from the U.S. Constitution to elect presidential candidates directly and providing for multi-member voting in elections for the U.S. House of Representatives.

To her detractors, she remained what she had always been: a kooky, and possibly dangerous radical feminist, a rabble-rouser extraordinaire. Admirers viewed her quite differently. Until her death at the age of 92 on May 18, 1973, she was a courageous voice that dared to speak the truth to power even when her views were unpopular.

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