Jeannette Rankin

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Jeannette Rankin
Jeannette Rankin cph.3b13863.jpg
Jeannette Rankin, 1917
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) became the first woman to hold a high government office in the United States when she won election to the United States Congress, in 1916 from the state of Montana.[2] After winning her House seat in 1916 she said, "I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last."[3] She also was elected in 1940.

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 to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.[3][4]

Life and career[edit]

Early life and suffrage movement[edit]

Rankin was born on June 11, 1880 near Missoula, Montana—nine years before the territory became a state—to schoolteacher Olive Pickering Rankin and Scottish-Canadian immigrant carpenter and rancher John Rankin.[3] She was the eldest of six children, including five girls (one of whom died in childhood) and one brother, who later became her principal political advisor.

As an adolescent, Rankin cleaned, sewed, and helped care for her younger siblings, in addition to sharing in the outdoor work and daily farm chores. She helped maintain the ranch machinery, and once single-handedly built a wooden sidewalk for a building owned by her father so that it could be rented.[5] Rankin later recorded her childhood observation that while women of the 1890s western frontier labored side by side with the men as equals, they did not have an equal political voice—nor a legal right to vote.[6]

Rankin graduated from high school in 1898, and from the University of Montana in 1902 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. With no clear career ambitions, she first tried dressmaking in Missoula, and then furniture design in Boston, where she lived while her brother attended Harvard. She also turned down several marriage proposals.[6]

At the age of 28 Rankin moved to San Francisco to take a job in social work. Confident that she had found her calling, she enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy in New York City (later part of Columbia University) from 1908 to 1909, then moved to Spokane, Washington. After briefly serving as a social worker in Spokane she attended the University of Washington and became involved in the women's suffrage movement. She helped organize the New York Women's Suffrage Party and worked as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In November 1910, Washington voters approved an amendment to their state constitution permanently enfranchising women, the fifth state in the Union to do so.[7]

In February 1911, Rankin became the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature, making her case for women's suffrage. In November 1914, Montana passed a similar amendment granting women unrestricted voting rights.[3][8] 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."[9]

First congressional term[edit]

Rankin's portrait, by Sharon Sprung, in the House of Representatives Collection

Rankin's campaign for Montana's at-large House seat in the congressional election of 1916 was financed and managed by her brother Wellington D. Rankin, an influential member of the Montana Republican Party. The campaign involved traveling long distances to reach the state's widely scattered population. Rankin rallied support at train stations, street corners, potluck suppers on ranches, and remote one-room schoolhouses, and won by over 7,500 votes.[6]

With her election in November 1916 at age 36, Rankin became the first woman member of Congress.[3] On April 6, 1917 Congress declared war on Germany, marking the country's official entry into World War I. Rankin cast one of fifty House votes against the resolution: "I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it." Although 49 men joined her in voting against the declaration, Rankin was singled out for criticism.[10] Some considered Rankin's vote to be a discredit to the suffragist movement and to her 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.[11]

By 1918, women had been granted some form of voting rights in about forty states, but Rankin became a driving force in the movement for unrestricted universal enfranchisement. In January 1918 she opened congressional debate on a Constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage to women. The resolution passed in the House and was defeated by the Senate, but in 1919 a similar resolution passed both chambers. After ratification by three-fourths of the states, it became the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[12] Her affirmative vote on the original House resolution made Rankin, as she later noted, "... the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote."[6]

During Rankin's term the Montana legislature restructured its voting districts, and she found herself in an overwhelmingly Democratic one. In 1918 she opted to run for the United States Senate. After losing the Republican primary to Oscar M. Lanstrum, she accepted the nomination of the National Party, and finished third in the general election behind incumbent Democrat Thomas J. Walsh and Lanstrum.[11]

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.[6]

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.[13]

Second congressional term[edit]

Rankin in 1939

Rankin won back her House seat in 1940 at the age of 60, defeating the incumbent Jacob Thorkelson, an outspoken antisemite. She was appointed to the Committee on Public Lands and the Committee on Insular Affairs. The ongoing debate in Congress and throughout the country over potential U.S. involvement in World War II was silenced after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.[11]

On December 8 Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on Japan. Hisses could be heard in the gallery as Rankin cast the vote; several colleagues, including Rep. (later Senator) Everett Dirksen, asked her to change it to make the resolution unanimous—or at very least, to abstain—but she refused. "As a woman I can't go to war," she said, "and I refuse to send anyone else."[14]

After the vote an angry mob followed her as she left the Capitol building, and she was forced to take refuge in a telephone booth. A UPI photo, taken as she phoned United States Capitol Police to request assistance appeared the following day in newspapers across the country.[15] Two days later a similar war declaration against Germany and Italy came to a vote; Rankin abstained. Her political career effectively over, she retired in 1942 rather than face a near-certain re-election defeat.[6] Asked years later if she had ever regretted her action, she replied, "Never. If you're against war, you're against war regardless of what happens. It's a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute."[16]

After Congress[edit]

Over the next twenty years Rankin traveled the world, frequently visiting India, where she studied the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.[6]

Rankin in 1973

In the 1960s and 1970s a new generation of pacifists, feminists, and civil rights advocates found inspiration in Rankin, and embraced her efforts in ways that her own generation had not. The Vietnam War mobilized her once again. In January 1968, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of women's peace groups, organized an anti-war march in Washington, D.C.—the largest march by women since the 1913 woman suffrage parade.[11] Rankin led the five thousand participants from Union Station to the steps of the Capitol Building, where they presented a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.[3][11] Simultaneously, 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 to draw attention to the passive role allotted to women as wives and mothers.[17]

Death and legacy[edit]

Rankin's monument in the National Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C.

In 1972, Rankin—by then in her nineties—considered mounting a third House campaign to gain a wider audience for her opposition to the Vietnam War;[3] but she died on May 18, 1973, age 92, in Carmel, California.[18]

Rankin (who never married) bequeathed her estate, including the property in Watkinsville, Georgia, to help "mature, unemployed women workers". The Jeannette Rankin Foundation (now the Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, awards annual educational scholarships to low-income women 35 and older across the United States. Beginning with a single 500-dollar scholarship in 1978, the fund has since awarded more than $1.8 million in scholarships to more than 700 women.[19]

A statue of Rankin, inscribed "I Cannot Vote For War", was placed in the United States Capitol's Statuary Hall in 1985. At its dedication, historian Joan Hoff-Wilson called Rankin "one of the most controversial and unique women in Montana and American political history".[14] A replica stands in Montana's capitol building in Helena.[6]

Although her legacy rests almost entirely on her pacifism, Rankin 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.”[14]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2004 peace activist Jeanmarie Simpson produced and starred in the one-woman play A Single Woman, based on the life of Rankin. Simpson baked bread during each performance and distributed it to audience members as the show concluded. She performed the play 263 times over two years 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 the American Friends Service Committee.[20]

Simpson then wrote and starred in a film biography of Rankin, also titled A Single Woman, directed and produced by Kamala Lopez, narrated by Martin Sheen, and featuring music by Joni Mitchell.[21]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Montana". Official Congressional Directory: 65th Congress. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1917. 
  2. ^ Laura van Assendelft and Jeffrey D. Schultz, Encyclopedia of Women in American Politics (1998) pp 188, 310-18
  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. ^ O'Brien, MB: Jeannette Rankin: Bright Star in the Big Sky. TwoDot (2001), pp. 23-5. ISBN 1560442654
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Alter, Judy. Extraordinary Women of the American West. Children's Press, 1999, pp. 153–157
  7. ^ Fiege, G (October 4, 2010). How Washington women won the right to vote. The Herald of Everett, Washington. Retrieved July 27, 2015.
  8. ^ O'Brien (2001), pp. 29-31.
  9. ^ Hoff, Joan. "Who Was Jeannette Rankin". Peace is a Woman's Job. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  10. ^ O'Brien (2001), pp. 44-5.
  11. ^ a b c d e Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience. Montana Historical Society Press, 2002
  12. ^ O'Brien (2001), pp. 46-7.
  13. ^ Lemons, J. The Sheppard–Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s, The Journal of American History, March 1969
  14. ^ a b c "Jeannette Rankin". 125 Montana Newsmakers. Great Falls Tribune. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  15. ^ O'Brien (2001), p. 16.
  16. ^ O'Brien (2001), p. 17.
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ "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. ... 
  19. ^ Jeanette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund website "History & Mission" Check |url= scheme (help). Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund. Retrieved January 10, 2013. 
  20. ^ "Jeanmarie Simpson: 'Artivist' for Change, Part 2". Retrieved January 9, 2013. 
  21. ^ "A Single Woman". Heroica Films, Inc. 2009. Retrieved January 13, 2013. 


Further reading

  • 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.
  • Mary Murphy. "When Jeannette Said 'No': Montana Women's Response to World War I," Montana: The Magazine of Western History 65#1 (Spring 2015) pp: 3-23.
  • 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]

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