Adventures in Feministory: Jeannette Rankin, the First Woman Elected to U.S. Congress

black and white photo of Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin was a suffragist and the first woman elected into the United States Congress in 1916. A lifelong pacifist, Rankin was the only person in Congress to vote against entering both WWI and WWII. She believed that many of the problems in government were tied to the fact that there weren’t enough women in politics and she said many times, “the peace problem is a woman’s problem.” 

Rankin was born in 1880 and raised on a ranch near Missoula, Montana. At a time when college was out of reach for most Americans (not to mention most women), Rankin graduated from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology. After graduating, this countrywoman moved to New York and attended the New York School of Philanthropy (known today as Columbia University’s School of Social Work). Rankin used her studies of social work to start her political activism—she became a suffragist and women’s rights activist. She worked for the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and was instrumental in the passage of women’s suffrage in North Dakota in 1913 and Montana in 1914.

In 1916 Rankin ran for Montana’s House of Representatives seat under a platform based on social welfare and women’s rights—and won. Rankin was the first woman elected into U.S. Congress, a task even more impressive as it was four years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, which gave white women the right to vote on a national level. During her first term in Congress, Rankin advocated suffragist politics and helped create the House Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1917. In addition to her work on suffrage, Rankin was outspoken about her pacifism and was one of only fifty members of Congress who voted against entering into WWI.

In 1918, Rankin decided not to run for reelection in the house, but ran for U.S. Senate and lost. Not easily discouraged, Rankin remained politically active and continued to engage her beliefs in pacifism and social welfare. In 1919 she attended the Women’s International Conference for Permanent Peace in Switzerland and joined the Women’s International Leagues for Peace and Freedom. In 1928 she founded the Georgia Peace Society after she bought a farm in Georgia. Rankin then became a lead lobbyist for the National Council for the Prevention of War from 1929 to 1939. Also during this time Rankin lobbied for legislation to ban child labor along with other provisions to give women and infants health care.

Jeannette Rankin statue

In 1940 Rankin ran for Montana’s House of Representatives seat again and won on her anti-war platform. In 1941 following the attack of Pearl Harbor, the House passed a war resolution with a vote of 388 to one—naturally, the one was Rankin. Rankin never once backed down from her belief that violence was not the answer to political conflict and was met with hostility from both her fellow Congressmen and the public. Following her singular, pacifist vote against the war, Rankin had to be escorted from Congress by police for her own safety—the irony could not be overstated. During the rest of her term, Congress was largely focused on war-related politics and Rankin’s popularity, or lack thereof, made reelection unthinkable with her Montana constituents.

 Rankin’s life after Congress continued to be full of political activism, and she was a vehement protester of the Vietnam War leading a 5,000 strong march on Washington in 1968 at the age of eighty-eight. Up until her death Rankin dedicated her life to politics focused on pacifism and women’s rights. Despite being labeled as too idealistic, she left a mark on U.S. politics for her refusal to compromise her convictions on nonviolence and the rights of women.

Today Rankin’s legacy continues on in the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, which awards scholarships to low-income women.

Previously: Isadora DuncanAnnie Oakley

by Morgan Hecht
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Reading about Jeannette

Reading about Jeannette Rankin is awesome -- I really like this snapshot of her life.

I did want to point something out, though. This sentence reads, "Rankin was the first woman elected into U.S. Congress, a task even more impressive as it was four years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, which gave women the right to vote on a national level." I know it's unintentional, but that contains some erasure, as the Nineteenth Amendment didn't give women the right to vote -- it gave white women (often of a certain class) the right to vote. I don't say this to quibble, but just because there is a trend, sometimes, of people saying "women" when they really mean "white women," and I know women of color often notice and experience this; it's related (however tangentially) to the semi-recent controversy with the SlutWalks, regarding having these difficult conversations about safe spaces and who we really mean when we say "women."

Aside from that, though, thank you for the great biography. It's intriguing that she was such an impassioned pacifist and voted against entering WWI and WWII.

Re: Reading about Jeannette

<p>Thank you so much for responding and catching my error. I agree that often it is easy to make broad statements in language that overlook color/class and that I definitely did so in my post--I will correct my error right away. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about Jeannette, she was definitely an inspiring individual.</p>

Thank you from Jeannette Rankin Fund!

Thank you for sharing Jeannette's incredible story and hopefully inspiring others to follow her courageous example!

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