Jeannette Rankin was a Montana politician who made history in 1916 as the first woman ever elected to the United States Congress. She was also the only member of Congress to cast a vote against participation in both world wars. Unafraid to take controversial positions on several inflammatory issues, Rankin was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and a lifelong pacifist.
Jeannette Rankin’s Early Years
Jeannette Rankin, born on June 11, 1880, grew up on her family’s ranch near Missoula in the Montana Territory. The eldest of seven children, Rankin helped care for her younger siblings, perform farm chores and maintain farm equipment. Her early life experiences working side-by-side with men on the western frontier would shape her political views on women’s right to vote.
After graduating from Montana State University (now the University of Montana) in 1902, Rankin spent brief stints as a social worker in San Francisco and New York. She then moved to Washington State, where she joined the women’s suffrage movement, a fight that culminated in 1910 when Washington became the fifth state in the Union to grant women the right to vote.
Rankin went on to work as a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, traveling back and forth across the country to speak and lobby for women’s right to vote. Her grassroots organizing efforts in her home state helped win the women of Montana voting rights in 1914.
Congressional Election of 1916
Two years later, Rankin campaigned for one of Montana’s two open U.S. House of Representatives seats. She ran as a progressive Republican with financial backing from her politically influential brother Wellington.
Rankin wasn’t the first woman to run for federal office. In 1866, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched a symbolic bid for a Congressional seat in New York, while Ohio native Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872.
Jeannette Rankin campaigned on social welfare issues, U.S. neutrality in World War I and the right to vote for women in every state. She made history on November 7, 1916, when she won her election by a margin of 7,500 votes to become the first female member of Congress.
Shortly after her term began in April 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to “make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany. Rankin, who held strong pacifist views, voted against the American declaration of war. On April 6, 1917, the resolution passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 373-50.
For the remainder of her two-year term in office, Jeannette Rankin supported measures to protect women workers, mothers and children.
She was one of the founding members of the Committee on Woman Suffrage, which led the fight in the House of Representatives for a constitutional amendment that would grant women nationwide the right to vote.
Rankin opened the 1918 congressional debate on a constitutional women’s suffrage amendment by recalling President Wilson’s speech to garner support for U.S. entry into World War I.
“How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she challenged.
The 1918 amendment passed the House but died in the Senate. A similar resolution, which would become the 19th Amendment prohibiting states and the federal government from denying women the right to vote, passed both chambers in 1919, after Rankin left office.
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Second Congressional Term
After running unsuccessfully in 1918 for a U.S. Senate seat as an independent, Jeannette Rankin left office, dividing her time over the next two decades between pacifist and social welfare causes.
She became a lobbyist and speaker for the National Council for the Prevention of War from 1929 to 1939.
As U.S. involvement in another world war loomed, Rankin once again ran and was elected as a Representative from Montana in 1940. During her second Congressional term, she was one of seven women serving in the House.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Jeannette Rankin cast the sole vote against World War II, making her the only Congress person to vote against U.S. involvement in both World Wars.
“As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said.
The immediate backlash against Rankin’s anti-war vote was intense. When angry bystanders threatened to do her harm, Rankin locked herself briefly in a phone booth inside the House Republican Cloakroom while waiting for a police escort back to her office.
Rankin’s actions were widely ridiculed in the pro-war press. Given her unpopularity, she opted not to seek reelection in 1942.
Later in life, Rankin spent much of her time traveling the world. She was particularly drawn to India, where she immersed herself in the nonviolent resistance teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
During the 1960s, Jeannette Rankin became known to a new generation of Americans for her anti-war activism. In 1968, she led the Jeannette Rankin Peace Brigade, a protest march in Washington D.C. of some 5,000 feminists, pacifists, radicals and students to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.
Jeannette Rankin died in 1973 at the age of 92. At the time of her death, she was considering another run for a House seat in protest of the Vietnam War.
Rankin, Jeannette; United States House of Representatives, History, Art & Archives.
Votes for Women; United States House of Representatives, History, Art & Archives.
Jeannette Rankin: United States Senate.
The Congresswoman who paved the way for Hillary Clinton; Politico. November 2, 2016.