On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected as the first female member of the United States Congress.
Jeannette Rankin was born near Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880 to a schoolteacher and a rancher. She graduated with a degree in Biology from the University of Montana in 1902 and later attended the New York School of Philanthropy. After working as a teacher, seamstress, and social worker, Rankin became involved in the women’s suffrage movement while attending the University of Washington. She lobbied for women’s rights as part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in both Washington and Montana and helped facilitate women’s right to vote in both states. She attributed the dysfunction and corruption in the United States government to a lack of female participation.
These feelings led Rankin to begin campaigning for the 1916 Congressional Election with the help of her brother, who was a major power in the Montana Republican Party. She campaigned across the state, traveling far distances to reach the state’s dispersed population. Rankin won Montana’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by 7,500 votes, securing her as the first woman to become a member of Congress. This was a major feat not only because she was the first female congressional member, but also because only 12 states allowed women to vote at the time. After she was elected, she said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
During her first congressional term she became known for her pacifist position on issues. She voted against the United States entering World War I at the beginning of her term and fought for the rights of women working in the war effort. She also created legislation to help pass the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. After her term ended she continued her pacifist work by serving as a delegate to the Women’s International Conference for Peace in Switzerland and becoming an active member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was also a lobbyist and propagandist for the National Council for the Prevention of War.
She was elected as a U.S. House Representative again in 1939, just after the beginning of World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the only member of Congress to vote against the United States entering the war. Other members tried to dissuade her from her pacifist stance so that the vote would be unanimous, and she was quoted with saying, “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” An angry mob followed her afterward, and she was forced to hide in a telephone booth and call the congressional police to assist her.
Rankin’s second congressional term ended in 1943 and she spent many years after traveling the world and studying teachings of famous pacifists like Mahatma Ghandi. Before her death in 1973, Rankin actively protested America’s involvement in Vietnam and a new wave of pacifists, civil rights activists, and feminists idolized Rankin for her life’s work.
She set the stage for women’s involvement in politics. The Center for American Women and Politics reported that 184 women ran for Congress in 2012, which was a record breaker for women in politics. Her legacy also lives on through scholarship funds set up in her name and statues constructed in her honor. A play called A Single Woman based on Rankin’s life was written and performed over 200 times in two years, with proceeds benefiting peace organizations and movements.