Top image: Jeannette Rankin. Credit: Library of Congress
World Book continues its celebration of Women’s History Month with a look at Jeannette Rankin, who in 1916—almost four years before women had the right to vote nationally in the United States—became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. A Republican, Rankin served from 1917 to 1919 as congresswoman at large from Montana. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed upon her election in 1916. “But I won’t be the last.” Rankin was prescient: today, more than 100 women serve in the U.S. Congress. In 2016, a century after Rankin’s historic win, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made history by becoming the first woman to be a major party’s nominee for president of the United States. This Sunday, April 2, will mark 100 years since Rankin took office in 1917.
Rankin was born on June 11, 1880, near Missoula, Montana. She was the oldest daughter of eight children born to a rancher father and a schoolteacher mother. Rankin graduated from Montana State University (now the University of Montana) in 1902 with a B.S. degree in biology. She later attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later the Columbia University School of Social Work). She worked briefly as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, before entering the University of Washington in Seattle. While there, Rankin became involved in the woman suffrage (right to vote) movement. In 1910, women in Washington state gained the right to vote. Around this time, Rankin became a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1911, Rankin became the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature, in which she made her case for woman suffrage. Her speaking and organizing efforts helped Montana women win the right to vote in 1914. Along with Nevada, where women also won the vote that year, only 11 states had granted full voting rights to women by this time.
Rankin’s work as a social activist—as well as financial assistance from her brother Wellington, an influential member of the Montana Republican Party—helped her 1916 campaign for one of two at-large seats for the U.S. House of Representatives in her home state. Rankin ran as a progressive, emphasizing social welfare issues and pledging to work for a constitutional woman suffrage amendment. She came in second to Democratic Representative John M. Evans, winning Montana’s second House seat and becoming the first woman to serve in Congress.
Rankin began her service on April 2, 1917, when a special joint session of Congress was called after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. That evening, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany, stating that “the world must be made safe for democracy.“ A committed pacifist, Rankin voted against U.S. participation in World War I (1914-1918). “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she told the House.
Later in 1917, Rankin advocated the creation of, and was appointed to, a Committee on Woman Suffrage. In early January 1918, Rankin opened the first House floor debate on a constitutional amendment on woman suffrage. “How shall we explain … the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” The resolution narrowly passed in the House, but it died in the Senate. American women finally won the vote in August 1920 when the 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1940, Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives for one term. She won fame in 1941 as the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War II (1939-1945). “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said. Rankin’s votes against the nation’s entry into each world war ultimately earned her widespread respect for upholding her pacifist principles.
As a private citizen, Rankin also opposed U.S. involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1957-1975). In January 1968, inspired by the nonviolent protest tactics of the Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, Rankin led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, in which some 5,000 Vietnam War protesters marched on Washington, D.C. The marchers presented a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.
Rankin never married. She died on May 18, 1973, in Carmel,California. At the time of her death, at age 92, Rankin was considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War. A statue of Rankin represents Montana in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
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