Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was the first woman in Congress from any state. She represented Montana's 2nd district as a Republican from 1917 to 1919 and Montana's 1st district from 1941 to 1943. She was the only member of Congress to vote against the United States' entry into World War II, and also voted against entering World War I during her first term. A conservative Republican, she was a suffragist, social worker, and peace activist.
Rankin was born on a ranch near Missoula, Montana Territory, the first of seven children born to John Rankin, a rancher and merchant born in Canada, and Olive Pickering, a Yankee who was the first local schoolteacher. Her parents were well-to-do and prominent in Montana affairs. She never married.
Treated as a son by her father, Rankin attended public schools and graduated from the Montana State University in Missoula in 1902 with a B.S. in biology. On a visit to her brother in Boston in 1904 she was horrified at slum conditions and decided to enter social work. She attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later Columbia University's School of Social Welfare) in 1908-1909, then worked in Spokane, Washington. She studied social legislation at the University of Washington, where she became involved in the woman suffrage movement, Echoing Jane Addams, Rankin argued that slum conditions were worsened by women's inability to vote. In 1910 she returned to Montana to work for the Montana Equal Franchise Society. Declaring that she was suspicious of governmental priorities set without female involvement, she argued that voteless women were being taxed without representation. Rankin was hired as an organizer by the New York Women's Suffrage Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As a field secretary for NAWSA in 1913, Rankin directed a suffrage victory in North Dakota that year. She quit NAWSA in 1914 to return to Montana to help secure passage of woman suffrage there, which was achieved in 1914.
Rankin ran for Congress to "repay the women of Montana who had worked for suffrage." Rankin's brother, Wellington Rankin, financed and managed her campaign; running as a Republican, she won in November, 1916. A good speaker and organizer, she drew on suffragists voting for the first time as well as strong antiwar sentiments. Since two statewide seats were open, her slogan called on voters to vote the regional favorite, and her.
The first woman in Congress, Jeannette Rankin took her seat in the emergency session of the Sixty-fifth Congress called by President Woodrow Wilson on Apr. 2, 1917. Her status as the first Congresswoman, plus her youth and energy made her a national celebrity. Her stance on the war became a topic of debate in suffrage circles. Carrie Chapman Catt of NAWSA worried that an antiwar vote would make women seem unpatriotic. Alice Paul of the Woman's Party told her women must stand for peace. "The hardest part of the vote was that the suffragists were divided," she said later. "Many of my loved friends told me that I would ruin the suffrage movement if I voted against war." Her brother rushged to Washington to warn her she would destroy her career if she voted against war. Rankin passed on the first roll call, and Republican leader Joseph Cannon, counseled, "You cannot afford not to vote. You represent the womanhood of the country in the American Congress. I shall not advise you how to vote but you should vote one way or another--as your conscience dictates." Four days after her debut on the national stage Rankin voted against the war resolution on April 6, 1917. "Never for one second could I face the idea that I would send young men to be killed for no other reason than to save my seat in Congress," she recalled. In all 373 members voted in favor, 9 abstained, and 49 men joined Rankin in voting against war.
Rankin's vote attracted national attention. The New York Times editorialized that it was "final proof of the feminine incapacity for straight reasoning." In Montana the Helena Independent called her "a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl." The press reported that she had cried on the House floor, and while Rankin admitted to crying during the debate, she claimed to have composed herself by the time she voted, adding, "I have more respect for a woman who cries before she votes upon whether or not we shall have war than for the man who goes to a saloon and takes three highballs in a similar situation."
Rankin, a Republican, had the role of show horse rather than a work horse. The GOP made her the ranking minority member of a special committee to draft a woman's suffrage amendment (which was not passed by the Senate until the next Congress). She sponsored the Robertson-Rankin bill to establish a women's health education program; it failed but a 1921 version passed as the Sheppard-Towner Act. In 1917, Rankin exposed the Bureau of Printing and Engraving's abuse of its workers in defiance of eight-hour workday rules. Except for the 1917 Espionage Act, Rankin supported the Wilson administration in its prosecution of the war. She cosponsored legislation to give women United States citizenship independent of their husbands and aid women with children whose husbands were fighting in World War I. She also called for equal job opportunities and pay for women in war industries, and fought against a bill that gave the government the right to censor newspapers.
The "Lady from Montana" (a title she despised, preferring "Woman from Montana") was immensely popular. She wrote a weekly syndicated newspaper column and received bags full of mail. Instead or running for reelection in 1918, she ran for the Senate. She narrowly lost the Republican primary and lost by a wide margin in November, running on a reform coalition ticket.
1920s and 1930s
Out of office in the 1920s and 1930s, Rankin devoted herself to the pacifist cause, working with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which she helped found in 1919. In November 1920 she became a field secretary for National Consumers' League. Rankin spent four years speaking on women's and children legislation around the United States. In 1924 she worked on her brother’s unsuccessful bid for the Senate. The six months she served as executive and legislative secretary of the Women's Peace Union (WPU) in 1929 was turbulent. The WPU was based on a policy of meeting violence with nonviolence. It actively promoted passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing war. Rankin joined the WPU in 1929. The WPU was initially pleased with Rankin's work. However, when she acted independently of the WPU Working Committee, the committee decided not to renew her contract. She had a second home in Georgia and was active in politics there.
Rankin returned to Montana in 1940 as an isolationist Republican and opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who she said was leading the nation to war. Receiving support from other well-known isolationists, she won the GOP primary by 1000 votes and in the general election defeated a former congressman by 9200 votes. In Congress she opposed renewal of the draft (it passed by one vote), opposed military expenditures, opposed the Lend-Lease bill to aid Britain, and tried but failed to stop the repeal of the neutrality legislation of the 1930s. On the day after Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, Speaker Sam Rayburn refused to let Rankin speak against war, and she was jeered as she cast the lone congressional vote against the declaration of war against Japan, 388-1. Her stand destroyed her political effectiveness and ended her electoral career.
Rankin traveled across the world spreading a feminist, pacifist message. At age 88, she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a women's coalition, on an anti-Vietnam War march in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15, 1968. During the early 1970's, Rankin promoted peace, electoral reform, and women's rights through television, newspaper, and magazine interviews. Independent and idealistic,
- Alonso, Harriet Hyman. "Jeannette Rankin and the Women's Peace Union." Montana 1989 39(2): 34-49. Issn: 0026-9891
- Anderson, Kathryn. "Steps to Political Equality: Woman Suffrage and Electoral Politics in the Lives of Emily Newell Blair, Anne Henrietta Martin, and Jeannette Rankin." Frontiers 1997 18(1): 101-121. Issn: 0160-9009 in JSTOR
- Giles, B Kevin. ‘’Flight of the Dove’’ (1980), a laudatory but detailed biography
- Josephson, Hannah. Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography (1974), 227pp
- Lopach, James J. and Luckowski, Jean A. Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman. (2005). 328 pp. the standard scholarly biography
- Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience. (2002). 233 pp. based on 16 interviews with Rankin
- "Women in National Politics, Series 2. Part B: Republicans. Jeannette B. Rankin." 12 microfilm reels. Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1993. review in JSTOR