About Jeannette Pickering Rankin
Jeannette Pickering Rankin (June 11, 1880 – May 18, 1973) was the first woman in the US Congress. A Republican, she was elected statewide in Montana in 1916 and again in 1940. A lifelong pacifist, she is the only member of Congress to have voted against the entry of the United States into both World War I in 1917 and World War II in 1941. She is the only woman to be elected to Congress from Montana.
Jeannette Pickering Rankin (11 June 1880 – 18 May 1973) is most widely known as the first woman elected into Congress. A Republican, she was first elected by her home state of Montana in 1916, and then again in 1941. Her domestic and foreign politics lie within the strict lines of Pacifism, and despite overwhelming unpopularity at the time, have resulted in a legacy that helped propel the second wave of feminism and pacifism during the 1960s and 1970s.
Early life and suffrage movement
Rankin was born on a ranch near Missoula, Montana Territory, the first of seven children (one of whom died in childhood) born to Canadian immigrant and rancher, John Rankin. An uninterested student, Rankin graduated in 1902 from the University of Montana with a bachelor of science degree in biology. She then moved to New York in 1904 where she worked as a visiting nurse in the poverty stricken Lower East Side. It was during this time that the foundations to Rankin’s pacifism were born. The living conditions of the tenements and the destitution of the neighborhoods she worked in drove her to become a humanitarian and dedicated supporter of Progressive reform. She began to advocate for civil rights, women’s rights, and a grassroots democracy that widened its participatory boundaries. She attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later part of Columbia University) in the 1908-1909 school year, and worked in Spokane, Washington. She studied social legislation at the University of Washington, where she became involved in the woman suffrage movement. Agreeing with Jane Addams, Rankin argued that slum conditions were worsened by women's inability to vote. In 1910 she returned to Montana to work for the Montana Equal Franchise Society. She declared that she was suspicious of governmental priorities set without women's voice and argued that vote-denied women were being taxed without representation, echoing the famous credo from the American Revolution. Rankin was hired as an organizer by the New York Women's Suffrage Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As a field secretary for NAWSA, Rankin directed a suffrage victory in North Dakota in 1913. She quit NAWSA in 1914 to return to Montana to help secure passage of woman suffrage there, which was achieved in 1914. Her work in the first women’s rights movement is closely linked to the pacifism and dedication to a peaceful foreign policy that will define her Congressional contributions. She believed, as many women’s suffragists advocated during this period, that the corruption and dysfunction of the United States government was a result of a lack of feminine participation. As she states very clearly at a disarmament conference during the interwar years, “The peace problem is a woman’s problem…”.
Wellington Rankin, a power in the Montana Republican party and Jeannette Rankin’s brother, helped to manage her first campaign for the party nomination in the Congressional election of 1916 and in the general election. On November 7, 1916 she was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana, becoming the first female member of Congress. The Nineteenth Amendment (which gave women the right to vote everywhere in the United States) was not ratified until 1920; therefore, during Rankin's first term in Congress (1917–1919), many women throughout the country did not have the right to vote, though they did in her home state of Montana. She supported woman's suffrage, child-protection laws, and prohibition. Rankin’s election into Congress met with an initial popularity and international attention. She wrote a weekly newspaper column that was widely read by woman suffragists, and her Progressive appeals were accepted by a large portion of the population. However, just after her term began, the House held a vote on whether or not to enter World War I. Rankin cast one of 50 votes against the resolution, earning her immediate vilification by the press. About her vote, Rankin later said, "I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it." Women’s rights activist, Carrie Chapman Catt and a majority of the women’s suffragists considered Rankin’s vote against war to be a handicap to the women’s movement. By placing herself in a situation of ridicule, Catt and her fellow suffragists saw Rankin’s vote as a discredit to her authority in Congress. However, there was a minority of women’s activists such as Alice Paul of the Women’s Party who applauded Rankin’s vote. Paul understood Rankin’s opinionated vote as a display of the good women could do with the achievement of authority and power in politics. So begins the deep controversies that would reign over Rankin’s politics and Congressional participation for the rest of her career. The overwhelming dissatisfaction with Rankin’s vote to remain outside of the war resulted in her unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination to represent Montana in the United States Senate in 1918. She then ran an independent candidacy, which also failed. Her term as Representative ended early in 1919. Following her first term in Congress, Rankin accepted Florence Kelley’s invitation to be field secretary for the National Consumer’s League, while also spending the next years pushing for reform legislation to promote maternal and child health care. In 1918, and again in 1919, she introduced legislation to provide state and federal funds for health clinics, midwife education, and visiting nurse programs in an effort to reduce the nation's infant mortality. As a lobbyist, Rankin argued for passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, an infant and maternal health bill which was the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children. The legislation, however, was not enacted until 1921 and was repealed just eight years later. In 1925 Rankin further showed her dedication to her political positions by moving into a rustic cabin near Athens, Georgia. Living in a single room cabin without electricity, Rankin’s presence in Georgia was not met with welcome. She held “Sunshine” clubs to teach children about the importance of peaceful politics, and began the Georgia Peace Society in 1928 for adult involvement in her cause. Finding her work and her politics treasonous, the “Macon Evening Journal” attempted to discredit her with charges of Communist intentions. Beginning in 1929 and continuing for the following nine years, she worked as lobbyist and propagandist for the National Council for the Prevention of War. Leaving the Council in 1939, Rankin returned to Montana and, with the support from her brother, she once again ran for Congress. In 1940, on an anti-war platform, Rankin was elected to Congress for a second time. With World War II tempting US involvement, Rankin argued that the enemy was not abroad, but rather residing in the US itself in the form of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and disease. She advocated the buildup of a national defense, but did not encourage an active participation in the world war. Rankin met with her most intense opposition when, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, she remained strong in her pacifism and voted against entering a world war, the only member of Congress to do so. She defended her vote by saying, "As a woman, I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else." Montana Republican leaders demanded that Rankin change her vote, but she refused. Once her term ended in 1943, Rankin knew she didn’t have the support to win another election, and so she returned home to Montana to care for her aging mother. She then spent a few years traveling to different countries around the world, becoming even more determined her political views for international cooperation and peace.
After years of remaining out of the political sphere, the involvement of the US in Vietnam mobilized Rankin once again; this time as an adamant anti-war activist. In 1968 Rankin established the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and led thousands of marchers to protest the war in Washington. In addition to being newly praised for her pacifism, the 1960s and 1970s were decades in which a new wave of feminism was idolizing Rankin for her efforts in women’s rights. The new generations of women and reformers were embracing Rankin in ways that her generation never had. Her politics and her dedication to a peaceful world interaction made sense to the new-wave activists, and recognized the strides Rankin had taken in the realms of peace and civil rights.
Death and legacy
On the 18th of May 1973, just weeks before her 93rd birthday, Jeannette Pickering Rankin died of old age in Carmel, Ca. However, Rankin remained as active in politics as she could right up until her death. She continued to produce writing promoting women’s rights, peace, child welfare, and civil rights from her home which remained relevant in the civil rights movement of era. Though her career has left behind a legacy of controversy with some viewing her as impossibly idealistic, and others identifying her as an inspiration to be pursued, it is no doubt that Rankin’s dedication to her cause is above all, admirable. Her contributions to both feminist movements cannot be ignored, and continues to be active today. Rankin bequeathed her property in Watkinsville, Georgia to help "mature, unemployed women workers." This was the seed money for the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, a 501(c)(3) (non-profit) organization that gives educational scholarships annually to low income women all across the United States. The organization has built capacity since its single $500 scholarship in 1978 to the 80 $2,000 scholarships it awarded in 2007. She is also remains recognized for her politics. In 1985, a statue of her was placed in the United States Capitol's Statuary Hall. And in 2004, a play titled, A Single Woman, based on the life of Rankin, was produced and in 2008 a film adaptation was released.