Editor’s note: Welcome to the first post by one of USCHS’ great crop of current interns. We’ll have more, on a variety of topics, in the coming weeks.
–by Emily Sheley, USCHS intern
Although several of our posts have mentioned Jeannette Rankin and some of her contributions to the country, we’ve never explored the life and legacy of the first Congresswoman. So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at the life of this influential woman.
Jeannette was born in Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880, during the Gilded Age in America. Significant technological changes were taking place during this time; inventors and scientists were perfecting the use of electricity for purposes such as rail travel and lighting streets. The world was changing, and this was the perfect setting for Jeannette to grow and develop into the powerful woman that she would become.
Coming from humble circumstances—her father a rancher and her mother a teacher—Jeannette learned in her youth how to work hard. She applied this to her education, attending Montana State University, New York School of Philanthropy, and the University of Washington. Before her entry into the political sphere, she tried several occupations, including teaching and social work. She also spent some time as a seamstress before realizing her passion for the suffrage movement.
While living in Washington, Jeannette worked to change the state constitution to allow women the right to vote. Her hard work paid off in 1910, when Washington finally amended its constitution. Jeannette then took her social activism expertise back to Montana. Her efforts were successful once again: Montana granted women the right to vote in 1914.
Once again applying her political prowess, Jeannette ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 for Montana’s At-Large district. According to the History of the House website, Jeannette “had two key advantages: her reputation as a suffragist and her politically well-connected brother, Wellington, who financed her campaign.” (1) These were certainly advantages to her campaign, but Jeannette also had a progressive platform, something that strongly appealed to the supporters of the suffrage movement. She was opinionated and unapologetic about her stance on war. Among other qualities, these advantages helped her to win one of Montana’s two seats and become the first female Member of Congress.
Jeannette made significant contributions to the country during her two-year term in the House. For example, when President Wilson asked for a declaration of war on Germany, Jeannette adamantly voted in opposition. She also created legislation for women’s rights and helped to pass the Nineteenth Amendment. After her term ended in 1919, Rankin remained a proponent of pacifism and women’s rights.
Later in life, when she was about 60 years old, Rankin took her seat for a second term in the House, this time representing Montana’s first district. It was during this term that she voted against American involvement in World War II, the only Member of Congress to do so. Although she proved herself to be true to her convictions, Jeannette received severe criticism for her negative vote. Her brother even stated, “Montana is 100 percent against you.” (2) Because of this opposition, she did not run for re-election in 1942, thus ending her formal political career.
Because of her historic election to Congress and her dedication to the cause of women, Jeannette Rankin is currently honored in multiple ways. She has a namesake foundation that awards scholarships to “mature, unemployed women workers.” She also is memorialized by a statue in Statuary Hall.
This month, as we recognize the powerful women in American history, let’s remember how Congresswoman Rankin paved the way for the future women of Congress.
Do you have a favorite female Senator or Representative? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
(1) History, Art & Archives, “Rankin, Jeannette.” http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/.