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Born June 11, 1880
Died May 18, 1973
American politician, feminist, and pacifist
The first woman in U.S. history to serve in Congress, Jeannette Rankin was elected at a time when most American women were not even allowed to vote. Throughout her life she was a strong advocate for women's rights, leading the campaigns for women's suffrage (the right to vote) as well as for social reforms to help working and poor people. Rankin was also a strict pacifist (someone who does not believe in using violence to solve disputes), and this belief damaged her political career when she voted against U.S. entry into both World War I and World War II. In fact, Rankin ignored the overwhelming tide of public opinion to become the only member of Congress to vote "no" on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882-1945; see entry) resolution to enter World War II. An energetic, relentless fighter for causes she believed in, even if they were unpopular, Rankin voted her conscience despite the consequences.
A frontier childhood
Rankin was the oldest of seven children born to John Rankin, a wealthy rancher and land developer who had immigrated to Montana from Canada, and Olive Pickering Rankin, a schoolteacher. When Rankin was born, Montana was still a territory (it would become a state in 1889) and Missoula was very much a frontier town where one was likely to see Native Americans wearing their traditional clothing. An adventurous, intelligent girl, Rankin didn't like school much but was a quick learner. She enjoyed riding horses as well as designing and sewing her own dresses.
When the University of Montana opened in Missoula in 1898, Rankin was one of its first students. She graduated four years later with a degree in biology but still unsure about what she would do with her life. She became an elementary school-teacher for a short time—one of few career options available to women at the beginning of the twentieth century—but found the classroom too limiting. She also served as an apprentice to a seamstress and took a correspondence course in furniture making, but these pursuits did not satisfy her either.
Becoming aware of social problems
In 1904, Rankin left Montana for the first time, traveling to Boston to visit her beloved brother Wellington, who was a student at Harvard University. Shocked by the poverty and miserable conditions of people living in the slums of Boston, she started reading the works of various social reformers to learn how these problems could be lessened. Rankin decided that she would become a social worker and try to help people improve their lives.
Returning to the West Coast, Rankin began working in a San Francisco settlement house (a kind of community-service center located in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood). In 1908 she left this job to attend the New York School of Philanthropy (which later became the Columbia University School of Social Work). About a year later, Rankin moved to Seattle, where she did some social work while studying economics, public speaking, and sociology at the University of Washington.
Fighting for women's suffrage
At this time the women's suffrage movement was gaining more and more followers, and Rankin joined the fight to give women the right to vote. She signed up with Washington's state suffrage organization, and when its leaders discovered her talents as an organizer and public speaker, they sent her around the state to work on the campaign. In November 1910, Washington voters approved the amendment guaranteeing women's suffrage. Meanwhile, Rankin had gained valuable experience organizing local groups and coordinating campaign activities.
She would put these new skills to use only three months later, when she returned to Montana to lead the women's suffrage movement there. Rankin organized the Equal Franchise Society to push for the amendment giving women the right to vote in that state, and became the first woman ever to address the Montana state legislature when she made a speech in favor of women's suffrage. Although the amendment failed to pass on this first try, Rankin had helped to establish a strong women's rights movement in Montana, and the state's women did finally gain the right to vote in 1914.
A successful campaign
Meanwhile, Rankin served as legislative secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and promoted the cause in several other states, including New York, California, and Ohio. During a long vacation in New Zealand (where women already had the right to vote), Rankin decided that she could put her beliefs into action by running for the U.S. Congress. Her brother Wellington agreed and supported her decision.
Rankin's experience in social reform and campaigning helped her as she prepared to run for office as a Republican in a mostly Democratic state. Her platform (a statement of a party's beliefs or positions on issues) included national women's suffrage, child protection law, the ban on alcohol known as prohibition (she kept quiet on this issue, though, to avoid opposition from Montana's liquor companies), and pacifism (nonviolence). Rankin won the Republican nomination over seven male candidates, partly because many female Democrats crossed party lines to vote for her. During the campaign that followed, Rankin traveled all over Montana. When the votes were counted, Rankin had won one of only two seats in the House of Representatives—the only Republican winner in Montana's election.
Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, an impressive feat in view of the fact that at the time most American women did not even have the right to vote. Rankin intended to use her office as a forum to speak out for women's rights and the others issues she supported, but World War I (1914-18) would change her plans.
As Congress opened its session on April 2, 1917, Rankin was escorted to the Capitol by a group of excited supporters, including the prominent feminist leader Carrie Chapman Catt. There were many cheers for Rankin as she walked down the aisle of the House chamber. But only four days later, the mood in Congress changed when President Woodrow Wilson proposed that the United States declare war against Germany.
Taking an unpopular stand
Relations between the United States and Germany had been going downhill for several years, and Germany—already at war with Great Britain and France—had recently sunk some American merchant ships at sea. Although for several years most Americans had favored isolationism (staying out of the affairs and conflicts of other countries), many now felt that Germany had gone too far.
Although the prospect of war had not been an issue in Rankin's campaign, she had never made her pacifism a secret. She did not believe the United States should go to war, and she thought most of her fellow Montana residents agreed with her.
At a special session on April 6, the Senate approved Wilson's resolution When it came to the House for a debate and vote, Rankin's brother urged her to vote in favor of the resolution. So did her suffragist friends, who worried that Rankin might hurt their cause if she voted against it. Nevertheless, when it was her turn to vote, Rankin stated, "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war." The resolution passed, and later in the day President Wilson declared war against Germany.
In a later statement explaining her position, Rankin commented that "It was easy to stand against the pressure of the militarists, but very difficult to go against friends and dear ones who felt that I was making a needless sacrifice by voting against the war, since my vote would not be a decisive one." Even though approximately fifty male members of Congress had also voted against the resolution, Rankin received the most attention. She was accused of acting "just like a woman," and there were calls for her resignation; some suffrage groups even canceled her speaking engagements.
A dedicated member of Congress
Despite her opposition to the fighting, Rankin sold Liberty Bonds to support the war effort. She voted in favor of the draft (which requires qualified young men to serve in the military) but against the Espionage Act, which cast suspicion on foreign residents of the United States and also made it dangerous to disagree with government policy.
During her two years in office Rankin also introduced a bill to make women independent citizens, apart from their husbands. She promoted government-sponsored aid for mothers and children and helped bring about better working conditions for employees of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. She also worked to resolve the problems of Montana's copper miners (including trying to settle a strike).
In 1918 Rankin decided to run for the Senate. When she failed to get the Republican nomination, she ran as the candidate of the liberal National Party. She was defeated by the Democratic candidate, who had the support of the powerful Anaconda Copper Company.
Working for peace, at home and abroad
Over the next twenty years, Rankin threw all of her energy into a variety of social reform efforts. In 1919 she became involved with a variety of international groups that were working to promote women's rights and world peace. In 1923, she bought a farm in Athens, Georgia, and became a part-time resident of that state, founding the Georgia Peace Society in 1928. She advocated peace on the international level through her support of the International Court of Justice, the General Disarmament Conference, and the London Naval Conference.
Toward the end of the 1930s, the world seemed headed toward another war. By 1939, Great Britain and France were already at war with Germany, and the United States was supplying them with supplies and weapons. Many felt it was only a matter of time before the United States would be drawn into the conflict. Nevertheless, Rankin remained a strong pacifist, and in 1940 the citizens of Montana again elected her to the House of Representatives. Running on an antiwar platform, Rankin had conducted a very effective campaign—visiting, for example, fifty-two of the fifty-five high schools in her district—and had won a big victory.
Voting "no" a second time
Despite the nation's generally isolationist mood, more people were becoming aware of the dangers of fascism (a political system that elevates the central government above citizens and is often run by the military), which was spreading across Europe. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a devastating attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing thousands of people and destroying battleships, airplanes, and other equipment. The American public was shocked and outraged at the attack. The next day, President Roosevelt brought before Congress a proposal to declare war on Japan.
Just as she had done more than twenty years earlier, Rankin took an unpopular stand and voted against the resolution. "As a woman I can't go to war," she said, "and I refuse to send anyone else." The only member of Congress to vote no, Rankin caused a great furor: she was booed and cursed and had to be escorted by police back to her office, where she remained, under guard, for the rest of the day. In the weeks that followed, she received a huge amount of hate mail.
Remaining involved in social issues
Needless to say, Rankin was not reelected. Once again she returned to social reform work, setting up a "cooperative homestead" (in which residents live and work together cooperatively) for women in Georgia. Interested in and inspired by Indian leader and pacifist Mohatma Mohandas Gandhi, the advocate of peaceful resistance who led his country to independence in 1947, Rankin visited India seven times between 1946 and 1971. In 1962, ignoring the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, she traveled to Moscow as an observer at the World Peace Congress.
During the 1960s, the United States became involved in a conflict in Vietnam (where Communist North Vietnam fought to take over South Vietnam, which was supported by the United States). Strongly opposed to the war, Rankin took an active role in the protest movement that gathered strength toward the end of the decade. On January 15, 1968, at age eighty-eight, she led a procession of 5,000 women (who called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade) to the U.S. Capitol; she was one of fifteen women allowed inside to meet with lawmakers to express their opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In 1972, the National Organization for Women (NOW) honored Rankin as the first member of their Susan B. Anthony Hall of Fame, which highlights the achievements of American women. Even in her early nineties, Rankin remained active in public life, pushing, for example, for changes in the way presidents are elected. She also supported the work of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. She was even considering another run for Congress, but her failing health prevented her from doing so. She died in her sleep on May 18, 1973, just before her ninety-third birthday. In 1985, a bronze statue of Rankin was placed in the U.S. Capitol.
Where to Learn More
Block, Judy Rachel. The First Woman in Congress: Jeannette Rankin. New York: C.P.I., 1978.
Giles, Kevin. Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin. Beaverton, OR: Touchstone Press, 1980.
Josephson, Hannah. First Lady in Congress: Jeannette Rankin. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974.
Morin, Isabel. Women of the U.S. Congress. Minneapolis, MN: Oliver Press, 1994.
Regele, Susan, writer, Ronald Bayley, producer, and Nancy Landgren, director. Jeannette Rankin: The Woman Who Voted No. Video Recording. PBS Video, 1984.
Jeannette Pickering Rankin of Montana was the first woman in U.S. history to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. A nonconformist Republican, she served two nonconsecutive terms in the House. Rankin is best remembered for her opposition to war. In 1917 she voted against the entry of the United States into world war i, and in 1941 she took the same position against U.S. involvement in world war ii. During the 1960s Rankin protested U.S. military action in Southeast Asia.
Rankin was born on June 11, 1880, on a ranch near Missoula, Montana. The oldest of seven children, Rankin was first among a family of high achievers. One of Rankin's sisters became dean of women at the University of Montana, and another taught in the English department there. Rankin's only brother and
another sister became well-known, politically connected attorneys.
Rankin was an intelligent but undistinguished student. She graduated from the University of Montana in 1902 with a bachelor's degree in biology and then taught school for six years. In 1908 she left Montana to seek other challenges.
Earlier Rankin had visited Boston where she saw urban slums for the first time. She vowed to help improve the living and working conditions of poor Americans. In 1908 Rankin entered the New York School of Philanthropy in New York
City (renamed the Columbia School of Social Work) and became a social worker.
In 1910 Rankin moved to Spokane, Washington, to work in a children's home. Inspired by the supporters of women's suffrage, Rankin concluded that good legislation was more effective than social work in solving society's problems. She joined the suffrage movement in Washington and campaigned successfully for an amendment to the state constitution that gave women the right to vote.
After victory in Washington, Rankin returned to her native Montana to work for women's suffrage. In what was a bold move at the time, Rankin addressed the state legislature on the issue, reminding lawmakers that all citizens in a democracy deserved a voice. Her lobbying and organizing efforts paid off, and Montana gave women the right to vote.
Rankin continued to spread her message by traveling across the country, giving pro-suffrage speeches. She became a prominent member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. At the same time, Rankin also became involved in the turn-of-the-century peace movement, helping establish the Women's Peace Party.
In 1917 Rankin decided to run for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Montana had only one congressional district at the time because of its small population. Rankin campaigned for a federal suffrage amendment, stricter employment laws to protect women and children, and continued neutrality in the war being waged in Europe. She won the election by a very narrow margin, and at age thirty-six became the first woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Soon after she took office, Rankin's position on U.S. neutrality was tested. President woodrow wilson sought a U.S. declaration of war against Germany. On April 6, 1917, Rankin voted against U.S. involvement in World War I. Although forty-nine other representatives cast negative votes, Rankin's vote was widely publicized—and criticized—because she was the only female member of Congress.
Rankin was not reelected to Congress in 1918, in part because of her antiwar vote but also because she had antagonized powerful mining interests in Montana.
After her defeat Rankin resumed her work with the peace movement. She was a delegate to the Women's International Conference on Permanent Peace in Zurich where women analyzed the Versailles Peace Treaty of World War I. This process led to the formation of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1928 Rankin organized the Georgia Peace Society and in the 1930s she was a lobbyist for the National Council for the Prevention of War.
When war erupted again in Europe in 1939, Rankin was convinced that most U.S. citizens shared her views on neutrality. She returned to Montana to run for the House of Representatives. Rankin was reelected and reentered Congress in 1941.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, shattered widespread support for U.S. neutrality. This time when President franklin d. roosevelt sought a declaration of war against Japan, Rankin was the only legislator to vote against it. Her vote, although consistent with her two decades of work in the international peace movement, was roundly criticized as unpatriotic. Rankin's political career was irreparably damaged, and she did not run for reelection.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Rankin traveled abroad and lived modestly in Georgia. The vietnam war drew her back into the public spotlight. In 1968 she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a half-million women demonstrating in Washington, D.C., against U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia. In 1969 she took part in antiwar protests in South Carolina and Georgia.
Rankin died on May 18, 1973, in Carmel, California.
"We're half the people; we should be half the Congress."
Davidson, Sue. 1994. A Heart in Politics: Jeannette Rankin and Patsy T. Mink. Seattle: Seal Press.
Smith, Norma. 2002. Jeannette Rankin, America's Conscience. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press.
Stineman, Esther. 1980. American Political Women: Contemporary and Historical Profiles. Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.
Rankin continued to work for world peace. In 1919, she served as a U.S. delegate to the Second International Congress of Women in Zurich. In 1929–39, she worked as a Washington lobbyist for the National Council for the Prevention of War. She ran a blistering campaign against President Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy in 1940; Montana voters returned her to Congress. Still committed to pacifism, Rankin voted unsuccessfully against the Lend‐Lease Act and Agreements, the draft, the repeal of the Neutrality Acts, and increased military expenditures. Despite the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin cast the sole vote against U.S. entry into World War II, the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry in both world wars. She was not reelected in 1942.
After World War II, Rankin decried the Cold War, opposed the Korean War, and denounced U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1967, a broad anti–Vietnam War coalition of pacifists, feminists, and students organized the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and urged the eighty‐eight‐year‐old Rankin to run for Congress in 1968. Ill health forced her out of the race, but she continued to speak out against the Vietnam War until her death from a heart attack in Carmel, California, on 18 May 1973.
[See also Vietnam Antiwar Movement.]
Hannah Josephson , First Lady in Congress: Jeannette Rankin, 1974.
Justin D. Murphy