On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana broke the glass ceiling for female politicians, becoming not only the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, but also the first woman elected to the national legislature of any modern, independent democracy. Explore seven fascinating facts about this dedicated pacifist, suffragist and social reformer, who served two terms in the House of Representatives a quarter-century apart.
She struggled to find her calling.
After graduating with a degree in biology from the newly opened University of Montana, located in her hometown of Missoula, Rankin got a job as a schoolteacher. But she quickly grew bored and restless, quitting only to find herself equally uninspired by a seamstress apprenticeship and a correspondence course in furniture design. In 1908, the 27-year-old future congresswoman traveled by train to San Francisco, where she spent four months in a settlement house providing social services to poor immigrants. She subsequently enrolled at the New York School of Philanthropy (now part of Columbia University) intending to become a social worker. However, upon finding the conditions deplorable at her first social worker job—a children’s home in Spokane, Washington—she changed careers once again and entered politics. Returning to New York in 1911 following a short stint at the University of Washington in Seattle, she was hired as a lobbyist for the nation’s preeminent women’s suffrage organization and soon began to consider running for office.
She was elected before women won the right to vote nationally.
Rankin played a leading role in advocating for women’s suffrage in Montana, delivering groundbreaking testimony before the state legislature and numerous speeches all across Big Sky Country. Her efforts paid off in November 1914, when a referendum passed transforming Montana into the 10th state—all in the West—with equal voting rights for women. Two years later, in the very next federal election, Rankin threw her hat into the ring in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives. With the financial backing of her well-connected brother, she advanced out of the Republican primary and then came in second in the general election, good enough to secure one of Montana’s two at-large seats. (Overall, she won 24 percent of ballots cast, or 6,354 more than the third-place finisher.) No other female would serve in Congress until 1921, after the ratification of the 19th amendment enfranchised women nationwide.
She was gerrymandered out of office.
Rankin’s election brought her widespread fame. She even reportedly received several marriage proposals via mail and a $5,000 offer from a toothpaste company for a photo of her teeth. Yet she also faced a fierce backlash, particularly after becoming one of only 50 representatives to vote against U.S. entry into World War I. One Montana newspaper, for example, 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.” Rankin made additional powerful enemies through her support of striking copper miners, prompting the pro-mining state legislature to do away with the at-large voting system and place her in a heavily Democratic district. Realizing she had little chance at re-election to the House, Rankin decided to run instead for the Senate. Vilified in the press, she narrowly lost the Republican primary prior to mounting a third-party campaign in which she came in third with 23 percent of the vote. After just one term, her political career seemed finished.
She cast the lone congressional vote against World War II.
Immediately after leaving office in 1919, Rankin attended an international peace conference in Switzerland. She then spent most of the 1920s and 30s working as a lobbyist for various social welfare and anti-war organizations, including one she founded in Georgia, where she had purchased a farm. She never gave up hope of re-joining Congress, however, and in 1940—24 years after first winning election—reclaimed a Montana House seat, thanks in part to the support of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and several other nationally known progressives. “No one will pay any attention to me this time,” Rankin said. “There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected.” Coincidentally, she was sworn in just as the United States was about to enter another world war. And, once again, she opposed U.S. entry into that conflict, voting—the day after Pearl Harbor—against a declaration of war with Japan that passed 388-1 in the House and 82-0 in the Senate. The boos and hisses directed at her during the roll call vote were apparently so intense that she received a police escort back to her office. Unable to recover politically, she declined to run for re-election the following year.
She was constantly on the move.
From her first extended trip in 1904, when she visited her brother in Boston, Rankin was hooked on travel. In addition to setting foot in many U.S. states, often as part of her lobbying work, she regularly voyaged overseas, spending considerable time in such places as New Zealand, Russia, Ireland, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey. After familiarizing herself with the nonviolent teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, whom she called “the greatest philosopher of our time,” India became a particularly favorite destination. She traveled there on seven separate occasions, once spending several weeks at Gandhi’s final ashram and another time securing an audience with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Though she never met Gandhi, one of Rankin’s biographers would later refer to him as the “first real hero of her life.”
She actively protested against the Vietnam War.
The onset of old age did little to slow down Rankin or to soften her pacifist beliefs. In 1968, when she was 87, she led some 5,000 women dressed in black, calling themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, on a march to the U.S. Capitol, where they presented an anti-Vietnam War petition to House Speaker John McCormack. Rankin likewise wrote letters and gave speeches against the conflict, which she considered a “ruthless slaughter” caused by “stupid leaders” and a “military bureaucracy.”
Montana has yet to elect a second female member of Congress.
To date, 313 women have served in the U.S. Congress. Yet Rankin remains the only one to have represented Montana. Since gaining statehood in 1889, all 22 of Montana’s senators and 33 of its 34 representatives have been men, including current senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester and current representative Ryan Zinke.
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