Jeannette Rankin

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Jeannette Rankin
Jeannette Rankin cph.3b13863.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Montana's At-large district
In office
March 4, 1917[1] – March 3, 1919
Preceded by Tom Stout
Succeeded by District abolished
Pat Williams after district re-established in 1993
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Montana's 1st district
In office
January 3, 1941 – January 3, 1943
Preceded by Jacob Thorkelson
Succeeded by Mike Mansfield
Personal details
Born Jeannette Pickering Rankin
(1880-06-11)June 11, 1880
Missoula County, Montana, U.S.
Died May 18, 1973(1973-05-18) (aged 92)
Carmel, California, U.S.
Political party Republican
Alma mater University of Montana
University of Washington
Occupation Social worker, activist, Congresswoman

Jeannette Pickering Rankin (June 11, 1880 – May 18, 1973) was the first woman in the United States Congress, elected in Montana in 1916 and again in 1940.[2] After being elected in 1916 she said, "I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last."[3]

Rankin's two terms in Congress coincided with U.S. entry into both world wars. A lifelong pacifist, she was one of 56 members of Congress who voted against entry into World War I in 1917, and the only member of Congress who voted against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.[3][4]


Early life and suffrage movement[edit]

Rankin was born on June 11, 1880 near Missoula, Montana, to schoolteacher Olive Pickering Rankin and Canadian immigrant carpenter and rancher John Rankin.[3] She was the oldest of six children including five girls, one of whom died in childhood, and one brother, who later became her close political advisor during her career. As a child, Rankin gained a reputation for doing things most other girls didn't. She often helped ranch hands with machinery, and once single-handedly built a sidewalk to help her father rent a building.[5]

She graduated from high school in 1898, and in 1902 graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. Undecided about what to do next, Rankin tried dressmaking and furniture design but neither suited her. She also turned down several marriage proposals.[5]

Rankin attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later part of Columbia University) from 1908 to 1909, then moved to Spokane. After briefly serving as a social worker she attended the University of Washington and became involved in the women's suffrage movement. She became an organizer for the New York Women's Suffrage Party and a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) helping the women achieve the right to vote in both Washington and Montana.[3]

Rankin later compared her work in the women's suffrage movement to the pacifist foreign policy that defined her congressional career. She believed, with many suffragists of the period, that the corruption and dysfunction of the United States government was a result of a lack of feminine participation. As she said at a disarmament conference in the interwar period, “The peace problem is a woman’s problem."[6]

First congressional term[edit]

Rankin's first campaign for the congressional election of 1916 was financed and managed by her brother Wellington D. Rankin, a power in the Montana Republican Party. The campaign involved traveling long distances to reach the large state's scattered population. Rankin rallied support at train stations, street corners, potluck suppers on ranches, and remote one-room schoolhouses. Rankin won by over 7,500 votes.[5]

On November 7 she was elected to Montana's at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first female member of Congress.[3] During her term in the 65th Congress women did not have universal suffrage, but many were voting in some form in about forty states, including Montana. "If I am remembered for no other act," Rankin said, "I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote."[5]

Just after her term began the House held a vote on whether to enter World War I. Rankin cast one of fifty votes against the resolution, later saying, "I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it." Some considered Rankin's vote to be a discredit to the suffragist movement and to Rankin's authority in Congress, but others applauded it, including Alice Paul of the National Woman's Party and Representative Fiorello LaGuardia of New York.[3]

On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine disaster in Butte left 168 miners dead, and a massive protest strike over working conditions ensued. Rankin intervened, but mining companies refused to meet with her or the miners, and proposed legislation was unsuccessful.[7]

During Rankin's first term, the Montana legislature restructured its voting districts, and she found herself in an overwhelmingly Democratic one. Rather than run for re-election, she opted to run for the United States Senate in 1918. She initially ran in the Republican primary, and she ultimately lost the primary to Oscar M. Lanstrum. Following her defeat in the primary, she accepted the nomination of the National Party, and finished third in the election, behind incumbent United States Senator Thomas J. Walsh, the Democratic nominee, and Lanstrum, the Republican nominee.[7]

Between terms[edit]

In 1919 Rankin bought property in Georgia, where she organized social clubs for children, formed the Georgia Peace Society, and gave lectures on pacifism.[5]

She also worked as a field secretary for the National Consumers League and as a lobbyist for the National Council for the Prevention of War. She argued for the passage of a constitutional amendment banning child labor and the Sheppard–Towner Act, the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children.[3] The legislation was enacted in 1921 but repealed just eight years later.[8]

Second congressional term[edit]

Rankin was elected to Congress again in 1940, defeating incumbent Republican representative Jacob Thorkelson, an outspoken antisemite. She was appointed to the Committee on Public Lands and the Committee on Insular Affairs. World War II was raging in Europe, and another debate on U.S. involvement had broken out.[7]

Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against entering World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hisses could be heard from the gallery when Rankin cast the vote and several colleagues asked her to change it to make the war declaration unanimous, but she refused.[9] "As a woman I can't go to war," she said, "and I refuse to send anyone else." After the vote an angry mob followed her, and she was forced to hide in a telephone booth and call United States Capitol Police to rescue her.[5] Her vote made her extremely unpopular in Montana and she decided not to run for reelection in 1942 rather than face near certain defeat.

Life after Congress[edit]

Over the next twenty years Rankin traveled the world, frequently visiting India, where she studied the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.[5]

In the 1960s and 1970s, new waves of pacifists, feminists, and civil rights advocates found inspiration in Rankin and embraced her efforts in ways that her generation didn't. U.S. involvement in Vietnam mobilized her once again. In January 1968, a coalition of women's peace groups organized, The Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a women's peace march in Washington, D.C., the largest march by women since the 1913 woman suffrage parade. [7] Rankin headed up the parade of five thousand participants who marched from Union Station to the steps of the United States Capitol building, culminating in the presentation of a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.[3][7] While still honoring Rankin, a splinter group of activists from the women's liberation movement created a protest within the Brigade's protest by staging a Burial of True Womanhood at Arlington National Cemetery in order to draw attention to the passive role allotted to women as wives and mothers.[10]

Portrait of Rankin in the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Death and legacy[edit]

Rankin died of natural causes on May 18, 1973 in Carmel, California at age 92.[2] She had been considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.[3]

She bequeathed her property in Watkinsville, Georgia to help "mature, unemployed women workers." The Jeannette Rankin Foundation (later named The Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, annually gives educational scholarships to low-income women 35 and older across the United States. In 1978 the Foundation awarded one scholarship in the amount of $500, and has since built capacity and awarded more than $1.8 million in scholarships to more than 700 women. In 2012 the organization awarded 85 scholarships in the amount of $2,000 each.[11]

A statue of Rankin was placed in the United States Capitol's Statuary Hall in 1985. At the dedication, historian Joan Hoff-Wilson called her "one of the most controversial and unique women in Montana and American political history.[9] A replica stands in Montana's capitol, and the words "I Cannot Vote For War" are carved into the bases of both.[5]

Although her legacy rests almost entirely on her pacifism, she told the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972 that she would have preferred otherwise. “If I am remembered for no other act,” she said, “I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”[9]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2004, peace activist Jeanmarie Simpson produced a play entitled A Single Woman, based on the life of Rankin. Simpson baked bread during her performances, to be eaten by audiences in the final scene. The play was presented 263 times in two years, both in the U.S. and abroad, to benefit peace organizations and movements including the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Friends Service Committee.[12]

Simpson then wrote and starred in a film about Rankin's life, also called A Single Woman. The film was directed and produced by Kamala Lopez, narrated by Martin Sheen, and featured music by Joni Mitchell.[13] It was screened in 2008 at the Santa Fe Film Festival.[14]

In Harry Turtledove's multi-volume Southern Victory Series (alternate history), the fictional character Flora Hamburger has many characteristics in common with Rankin.


  1. ^ "Montana". Official Congressional Directory: 65th Congress. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1917. 
  2. ^ a b "Ex-Rep. Jeannette Rankin Dies. First Woman in Congress, 92. A Long Active Life Denounced Vietnam War. Suffragist Leader Was Only Member Voting Against U.S. Entry to Both World Wars". New York Times. May 20, 1973. Retrieved 2015-02-21. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the United States Congress and the only Representative who voted against the nation's entry into World Wars I and II, died Friday night at her apartment in Carmel, Calif. She was 92 years old. ... 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Jeannette Rankin". Women In Congress. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  4. ^ "U.S. Declares War, Pacific Battle Widens", New York Times, On This Day, December 8, 1941, Unity in Congress; Only One Negative Vote as President Calls to War and Victory 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Alter, Judy. Extraordinary Women of the American West. Children's Press, 1999, pp. 153–157
  6. ^ Hoff, Joan. "Who Was Jeannette Rankin". Peace is a Woman's Job. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience. Montana Historical Society Press, 2002
  8. ^ Lemons, J. The Sheppard–Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s, The Journal of American History, March 1969
  9. ^ a b c "Jeannette Rankin". 125 Montana Newsmakers. Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  10. ^ Moravec, Michelle (2010). "Another Mother for Peace: Reconsidering Maternalist Peace Rhetoric from an Historical Perspective 1967-2007". Journal of the Motherhood Initiative 1 (1): 9–10. 
  11. ^ Jeanette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund website "History & Mission". Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  12. ^ "Jeanmarie Simpson: 'Artivist' for Change, Part 2". Retrieved January 9, 2013. 
  13. ^ "A Single Woman". Heroica Films, Inc. 2009. Retrieved January 13, 2013. 
  14. ^ "A Single Woman". Santa Fe Film Festival website. 2008. Retrieved January 13, 2013. 

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Alana J. Erickson, "Rankin, Jeannette Pickering," Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 9 (1994)
  • Kevin S. Giles, Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeanette Rankin. Beaverton, OR: Touchstone Press, 1980.
  • James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski. Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2005.
  • Hannah Josephson, First Lady in Congress: Jeannette Rankin. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs–Merrill, 1974.
  • Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.
  • Joan Hoff Wilson, "'Peace Is a Woman's Job...': Jeannette Rankin and American Foreign Policy: Her Lifework as a Pacifist," Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Spring 1980), pp. 38–53. In JSTOR.

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Tom Stout
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Montana's at-large congressional district

March 4, 1917 – March 3, 1919
Succeeded by
Carl Riddick
Preceded by
Jacob Thorkelson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Montana's 1st congressional district

January 3, 1941 – January 3, 1943
Succeeded by
Mike Mansfield