Jeannette Rankin (1880 – 1973) was a Women’s Rights advocate, and the first woman to hold federal office in the United States of America. She was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana in 1916, and again in 1940. Each of Rankin’s Congressional terms coincided with the start of US military intervention in the two World Wars.
During the Progressive Era, a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States that spanned the 1890s to the 1920s, Rankin organized and lobbied for legislation to give women the right to vote in Montana, New York, and North Dakota.
In Congress, she introduced the legislation that became the 19th Amendment, granting unrestricted voting rights to women nationwide. She championed other Women’s Rights and Civil Rights during her career that spanned more than six decades.
Long associated with Montana, she left and moved to New York City when she was in her 20s. And it seems as if she felt stifled in Montana. She wrote in her journal: ”Go, go, go. It doesn’t matter where so long as you go, go, go.” So, she went to New York City to study social work in 1908.
That’s when she got all wrapped up in the radical movements of that era that were happening in Greenwich Village. This was the place where so many radical activists and ideas found their starts. Anarchist Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, were there. These women were on the cutting edge of the social and political thought of the time.
Rankin was very private about her personal life. Terms like gay, lesbian, or queer were not used the way they are now. Rankin didn’t call herself a lesbian. She never married and was never known to have a romantic relationship with a man. She did have a lifelong, extremely close relationship with writer Katherine Anthony, whose biographies of Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Queen Elizabeth I each sold more than 100,000 copies.
At the time, the Free-Love movement of the era and what we now call lesbianism was part of what was going on in NYC. Women loving women was exploratory and something that a lot of girls did, kind of like college life in the 1970s. The relationships that Rankin made with women in Greenwich Village lasted her entire life. There are decades of correspondence that show declarations of love between Rankin and Anthony. It makes sense that women who were leaders in all the pioneering work for Women’s Equality would form relationships that were not straight and narrow.
At the time, if women wanted to pursue a career, they put their whole selves into it. So many women stayed single, but they could have domestic partnerships with women or like Rankin, have long-lasting relationships with a lot of different women over the course of her life.
”My opponents had too much dignity. They couldn’t stand on the street corner and talk. So, I had that advantage.”
Rankin drove all over the country when she was campaigning for Women’s Rights. Everywhere she could station herself on a corner and talk to anyone about anything. There was no topic she wouldn’t take on. Pretty radical in the 1910s for a woman to be campaigning at all.
”Suffrage” is simply the franchise for the right to vote in public elections, although the term is sometimes used for any right to vote. The Suffrage Movement advocated for the crazy idea that women should be represented in government and should have something to say about the laws. Women in Montana got it before most of the USA. Before the 19th Amendment passed there was the state-by-state suffrage campaign that Rankin was a field organizer and was very much involved in New York, Ohio, California and Washington.
But she did end up eventually moving back to Montana, and in 1914 Montana voted to give women the right to vote. Although, Native American women weren’t included in that because Native Americans wouldn’t become citizens until 1924, ten years later. Montana was the 11th state to give women the vote, and it was a big part of Rankin building up her campaign for Congress.
Rankin’s campaign for one of Montana’s two House seats in the election of 1916 meant she traveled long distances to reach that huge state’s widely scattered population. She won and became the first female (and first lesbian) member of Congress. During her victory speech, she said:
“I am deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon me as the only woman in the nation with voting power in Congress.”
When her first term began, Congress was called into a session in response to Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. President Woodrow Wilson, addressing a joint session, asked Congress to “make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany. Rankin cast one of fifty votes in opposition. Rankin:
“I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it“.
49 male Representatives and six Senators also voted against the declaration, but Rankin was singled out for criticism.
Rankin used her office to push for better working conditions for laborers and she listened to the grievances of federal workers, and her work ultimately limited the workday to eight hours.
By 1917, women had been granted some form of voting rights in about forty states. In January 1918, Rankin opened congressional debate on a Constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage to women. The resolution passed in the House but was defeated by the Senate. The following year, after Rankin’s term had ended, the same resolution passed both chambers. After ratification by 3/4 of the states, it became the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Between her terms, Rankin made speeches around the country on behalf of the Women’s Peace Union and the National Council for the Prevention of War (NCPW).
In 1937, Rankin opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s proposals to intervene on the side of the British against Germany, arguing that both sides wished to avoid a second European war, and should pursue a diplomatic solution. She then declared her intention to regain her seat in the House of Representatives.
In the 1940 race, Rankin, at 60 years old, won back her old seat. While members of Congress had been debating the question of American intervention in World War II for months, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, galvanized the country and silenced any opposition.
On December 8, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on Japan. She was booed from the gallery as she cast her vote. Her friend Representative Everett Dirksen of Illinois asked her to change it to make the resolution unanimous, or at very least abstain, but she refused.
“As a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.”
After the vote, a crowd of reporters pursued Rankin into a cloak room. She took refuge in a phone booth until Capitol Police arrived to escort her to her office, where she was inundated with angry telegrams and phone calls. Her brother sent a telegram that said: “Montana is 100 percent against you!”. Rankin remained unapologetic. A photo of Rankin in the phone booth appeared the following day in newspapers across the country.
In the 1960s and 1970s a new generation of Pacifists, Feminists, and Civil Rights advocates embraced her in ways that her own generation never would. In 1968, she formed the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of women’s peace groups, and organized a march in Washington DC, the largest march by women since the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. In 1972, Rankin, now in her 90s, considered a third House campaign to gain a wider audience for her opposition to the Vietnam War, but she became too weak physically.
Rankin died in 1973 at 92. She left her estate to help “mature, unemployed women workers”. Her Montana residence, known as the Rankin Ranch, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund awards annual scholarships to low-income women over 35.
A statue of Rankin by Terry Mimnaugh inscribed “I Cannot Vote For War”, was placed in the US Capitol in 1985. A replica stands in Helena, Montana’s capitol. Rankin was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
The Green Party was removed from the ballot in Montana in 2020, the first time since 1988, so there were zero non-Republican or Democratic candidates running for either House of Representatives or the Senate in Montana in the last general election. Matthew Martin Rosendale Sr., a White Nationalist and friend of the twice-impeached 45th president is one of two congresspersons from the Big Sky State. The other is the charming Ryan Zinke, another MAGA, who briefly served as Secretary of Interior before being forced to resign amid scandal because he hated the environment. Rankin remains the only woman ever elected to Congress from Montana. She is still one of the most controversial and uncommon women in Montana and American History.
Rankin is at at the 30 minute point, but watch these Dick Cavett interviews, because sisters are doing it for themselves: