Born and raised on a ranch near Missoula, Montana, Rankin was the daughter of progressive parents who encouraged her to think beyond the narrow sphere of opportunities generally permitted to women of the early 20th century. After graduating from the University of Montana and the New York School of Philanthropy, Rankin worked briefly as a social worker before becoming active in the national effort to win women the vote. In 1914, her efforts brought her back to Montana, where she believed pioneer conditions had created greater respect for women’s work and abilities, making it somewhat easier to convince men to grant them the right to vote. Indeed, other western states like Wyoming and Colorado had already approved women’s suffrage years before, and Rankin’s leadership helped Montana join them in 1914.
With the vote for women secured, Rankin put Montana’s new political dynamics to the test. She ran for one of Montana’s two seats in Congress as a Progressive Republican in 1916. With strong support from women and men alike, Rankin became the first woman in history elected to that body. When she traveled to Washington, D.C., the next year, the eyes of the nation watched to see if a woman could handle the responsibilities of high office. Rankin soon proved she could, but she also demonstrated that she would not betray her own strongly held convictions for political expediency. A dedicated pacifist, Rankin’s first vote as a U.S. congresswoman was against U.S. entry into World War I. Many supported her courageous stand, though others claimed her vote showed that women were incapable of shouldering the difficult burdens of national leadership—despite the fact that 55 men had also voted against the war.
Rankin’s vote against WWI contributed to her defeat in her 1918 reelection bid. For the next 20 years, she continued to work for the cause of peace. Ironically, she again won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940, just as the nation was about to enter World War II. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Rankin became the only person in the history of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into both world wars. This time, though, the principled pacifist from Montana cast the sole dissenting vote.