9 Facts About Jeannette Rankin, the First Woman Elected to Congress
In 1916, four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the nationwide right to vote, Montana suffragist Jeannette Rankin—who was born on this day in 1880—became the first woman elected to the United States Congress. In her later years, she also led important crusades for peace and women's rights.
1. SHE WANTED TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
Jeannette Rankin was born on June 11, 1880 on a ranch outside Missoula in what was then the Montana Territory. The oldest of seven children, she attended the local public schools and then studied biology at the University of Montana. After graduating from college in 1902, she tried a variety of jobs, including schoolteacher and seamstress. But Rankin began to sense her calling when she went to Massachusetts to care for her younger brother Wellington, who was studying at Harvard and had fallen ill. He recovered quickly, which allowed Rankin to travel around Boston and New York, where she saw the extreme suffering of those living in the slums, packed into unsafe, unsanitary tenements, while the wealthy lived the high life a few blocks away. A few years later, Rankin went to San Francisco to visit an uncle and witnessed the devastation that the 1906 earthquake had wrought in the city. Moved to do something, she went to work in a settlement house (a neighborhood center in a poor area where middle-class Progressives offered social programs) on Telegraph Hill. Rankin had seen poverty and misery in New York and Boston, but in San Francisco, she saw people dedicated to doing something about it. Now she knew what she wanted to do: become a social worker.
In 1908, she moved to New York City to attend the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia School of Social Work), and after receiving her social work degree moved to Washington state, where she worked at a children’s home in Spokane and another in Seattle. But continuously watching children suffer wore Rankin down, as did the sense that her work with individuals made little difference compared to the decisions made by the men in downtown offices who ran the agency. Rankin realized that perhaps social work didn’t offer the best path to forcing substantive change, so she turned her eye to policy.
Rankin returned to school at the University of Washington, where she read one day in 1910 that she could acquire free posters advocating women’s suffrage from the school’s College Equal Suffrage League. Rankin plastered the posters all over town, and her enthusiasm and work ethic caught the eye of a political science professor named Adella M. Parker, who suggested Rankin become a part of the campaign for women’s suffrage in Washington, which would be on the state’s ballot that November.
Women won the vote in Washington, and Rankin, invigorated, returned to Montana, where she joined the Montana Equal Franchise Society and gave speeches about accessing the vote. On February 2, 1911 [PDF], she spoke before the all-male Montana legislature, becoming the first woman to do so. Urging them to grant women the right to vote, she evoked the idea of “taxation without representation,” and suggested women belong in public service as well as in the home, arguing [PDF]: “It is beautiful and right that a mother should nurse her child through typhoid fever, but it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which typhoid resulted.”
Rankin began traveling as a professional suffrage activist, giving speeches and organizing campaigns in New York, California, and Ohio before returning to fight for the vote in Montana, where women’s suffrage passed the legislature in 1913 and a popular referendum the following year. Rankin then took a position as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, advocating for the vote in several states from 1913 to 1914.
2. SHE RAN A GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGN TO WIN A SEAT IN CONGRESS.
Rankin decided to run for Congress in 1916. She came from a family familiar with public service: Her father had been involved in local politics before his death, and her brother Wellington was a rising star in the state Republican party (he would be elected Montana’s attorney general in 1920). Wellington urged his sister to run and served as her campaign manager. His political connections plus her experience in grassroots organizing proved a winning combination.
In 1916, Montana had two at-large congressional districts, meaning the entire state voted for both representatives rather than dividing districts based on geography. One of Montana’s Democratic congressmen was retiring, and Rankin launched a statewide campaign for his seat. She took campaigning seriously, later recalling that she “traveled 6000 miles by train and over 1500 miles by automobile” during her bid. This was in marked contrast to the “seven mediocre men” she faced in the Republican primary, who, she said, “had too much dignity [to] stand on the street corner and talk.”
She beat those “mediocre men” handily in the August 1916 primary—surpassing the second-place finisher by 7000 votes—but the Montana GOP still had little enthusiasm for her candidacy, expending scant effort or money on her behalf. Nevertheless, Rankin put together a progressive platform: She advocated for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day for women, transparency from Congress, and policies to protect children. She ran a non-partisan grassroots campaign that worked to mobilize all of Montana’s women, and which included voter “registration teas” across the state at which women were registered to vote by a notary public.
3. THE MEDIA HAD NO INTEREST IN HER—AND THEN THEY WERE OBSESSED.
Rankin came in second in Montana’s at-large Congressional race, meaning she secured one of the two available seats. But in those days ballots were counted by hand, which took a long time. Montana newspapers—likely not taking her candidacy entirely seriously—initially reported that Rankin had lost. It wasn’t until three days later that the papers had to change their tune: Miss Rankin was headed to Congress.
Suddenly journalists across the country were clamoring to interview and photograph the nation’s first congresswoman. Photographers camped outside her house until Rankin had to issue a statement saying she was no longer allowing photos and would “not leave the house while there is a cameraman on the premises.” Before the election, Rankin’s team had sent The New York Times biographical material about their candidate, only to have the Times return it and run a mocking editorial urging Montanans to vote for Rankin because “if she is elected to Congress she will improve that body aesthetically, for she is said to be ‘tall, with a wealth of red hair.’” A month later, the paper was profiling her more seriously, reporting on her suffrage work and noting that she had “light brown hair—not red.” Of course, due to her gender, a profile on Rankin could not be limited to political topics. The Times also reported on her “Famous Lemon Pie,” and informed readers that “She dances well and makes her own hats, and sews.” Other newspapers took a similar tone.
4. SHE VOTED AGAINST ENTERING WORLD WAR I …
Rankin’s first week in Congress began auspiciously, but soon became contentious. On April 2, 1917, the day of her swearing in, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage honored Rankin with a breakfast, and she gave a brief speech from the balcony of NAWSA headquarters. Then the suffragists escorted her to the Capitol in a parade of flag-bedecked cars. When she arrived at her office, it was filled with flowers sent from well-wishers, and she chose a yellow and purple bouquet to carry onto the House floor. Once at the House chamber, congressmen treated her to a round of applause, and she was sworn in to cheers. The watching wife of a Texas congressman recorded in her journal that “When her name was called, the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice.”
But the day was soon to grow serious. That evening, President Wilson appeared before Congress and asked them to pass a declaration of war against Germany. The Germans had recently resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and though Wilson had been reelected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” the president now believed the time for military action had come. Two days later the Senate passed a declaration of war with only six dissenting votes, and the House would convene to vote the following day.
Rankin was uncertain about what to do. She was a pacifist but was under pressure from her brother, Wellington, who urged her to issue a “man’s vote” (i.e., in favor of war), telling her that anything else was career suicide. Some suffragists were also lobbying her for a “yes” vote; they believed a “no” would make women look too sensitive for politics. In the early morning of April 6, after hours of passionate speeches, the House voted: Rankin failed to answer during the first roll call, and when her name was called a second time, she rose and said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Forty-nine Congressmen joined her in dissenting, but the declaration of war passed the House anyway. Walking home, Wellington told Rankin she would likely never be reelected, and her vote did earn her copious negative press coverage. But Rankin did not regret her choice. Years later, she commented, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”
5. … AND THE PRESS CALLED HER VOTE “A FIT OF FEMALE HYSTERIA.”
For many, Rankin’s rejection of war was a sign of her excess feminine emotion, and newspapers reported that she had wept, trembled, and even swooned while delivering her vote. She was “overcome by her ordeal,” declared The New York Times. The humor magazine Judge took issue not with her vote but with her apparent manner: “It was because she hesitated that she was lost. […] If she had boldly, stridently voted ‘no’ in true masculine form, she would have been admired and applauded.”
According to eyewitnesses, however, Rankin did not sob, faint, or otherwise display any “feminine weakness.” However, several of her fellow lawmakers did weep. Suffragist Maud Wood Park, who watched from the gallery, noted that “She may have shed a few tears before or after she voted; but if so, they were not evident in the gallery; whereas the Democratic floor leader, Claude Kitchin, the nth degree of the he-man type, broke down and wept both audibly and visibly during his speech against the resolution.” New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia later told reporters that though he did not notice Rankin crying, his vision had been obscured by his own tears. “It was no more a sign of weakness for Miss Rankin to weep, if she did, than it was for Congressman Kitchin to weep,” suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt told The New York Times.
6. SHE FOUGHT TO MAKE WOMEN’S CITIZENSHIP INDEPENDENT OF THEIR HUSBANDS’.
Passed on March 2, 1907 [PDF], the Expatriation Act stripped any American woman who married a non-citizen of her own American citizenship. In contrast, a non-citizen woman who married an American man automatically gained American citizenship. Following the legal tradition of coverture, the Expatriation Act of 1907 asserted that, upon marriage, a wife’s legal identity was collapsed into that of her husband. This act understandably caused problems for many American women, but the Supreme Court upheld the law in 1915, ruling that “marriage of an American woman with a foreigner is tantamount to voluntary expatriation.” In 1917, Rankin introduced a bill to amend the Expatriation Act to protect married women’s citizenship. Morris Sheppard, a Democrat from Texas, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
But by this time the United States had entered World War I, and anti-foreigner sentiment—especially anti-German sentiment—was at a fever pitch. During a series of hearings before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, congressmen and other men presenting testimony showed little empathy for American women who would marry foreigners, and expressed worry that allowing such women to retain their citizenship would allow them to aid or protect German spies.
Rankin spoke assertively in the face of derision from fellow lawmakers. When Representative Harold Knutson, a Republican from Minnesota, remarked, “The purpose of this bill, as I understand it, is to allow the American woman to ‘eat her cake and still have it,’” Rankin coolly replied, “No; we submit an American man has the right to citizenship, regardless of his marriage, and that the woman has the same right.” But despite Rankin’s forceful defense of her bill, and testimony from women about its necessity, it was tabled by the committee.
It would take several more years for women’s citizenship to be protected in the same way as men’s. In 1922, after the war had ended and the 19th Amendment had given women the vote, Representative John L. Cable from Ohio sponsored the “Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act.” The law allowed any American woman who married a foreigner to retain her citizenship, providing her new husband was eligible for American citizenship himself. (This caveat meant that American women who married Asian men still lost their citizenship, as Asians were not legally eligible for naturalization. Chinese immigrants, for example, gained access to naturalized citizenship in 1943, while all race-based requirements for naturalization were eliminated in 1952.) In 1931, Congress introduced a series of bills removing the final restrictions on married women retaining their citizenship.
7. YOU DIDN’T NEED TO WATCH YOUR MOUTH AROUND HER.
Rankin had seen things: During her time as a social worker she had worked in tenement houses and slums, and she spent two months in the New York City night courts, primarily serving prostitutes. But the men she encountered often tiptoed around certain subjects and words. One euphemistic discussion with male lawmakers about “communicable disease” prompted Rankin to exclaim, “If you mean syphilis, why don’t you say so?”
Another time, during a House hearing about women’s suffrage, a Dr. Lucien Howe testified that women should not be given the vote because the infant mortality rate is too high in the U.S., and so women must devote all their attention to taking care of children and not waste any on politics. He ranted about the number of children who become blind because their mothers pass gonorrhea on to them, and because the mothers lack the “intelligence” to treat the babies’ eyes with silver nitrate drops. Rankin took him to task:
Rankin: How do you expect women to know this disease when you do not feel it proper to call it by its correct name? Do they not in some states have legislation which prevents women knowing these diseases, and only recently after the women’s work for political power were women admitted into medical schools. You yourself, from your actions, believe it is not possible for women to know that names of these diseases. (Pause.)
Dr. Howe: I did not like to use the word ‘gonorrhea ...’
Rankin: Do you think anything should shock a woman as much as blind children? Do you not think they ought to be hardened enough to stand the name of a disease when they must stand the fact that children are blind?
8. SHE WORKED TO SAVE THE LIVES OF MOTHERS AND BABIES.
When Rankin was first elected, the magazine Town Development dubbed her the “Babies’ advocate”—an image she certainly cultivated. To avoid alienating voters put off by a female candidate, Rankin presented herself as a traditional, feminine woman, a mother for the nation’s children, saying during her campaign that “There are hundreds of men to care for the nation’s tariff and foreign policy and irrigation projects. But there isn’t a single woman to look after the nation’s greatest asset: our children.”
A 1918 report from the Children’s Bureau on maternal and infant mortality rates shone a harsh light on that reality: As of 1916, over 235,000 infants died per year in the United States, while 16,000 mothers died in childbirth. Many of those deaths were preventable, but American women, especially in rural areas and among impoverished families, often lacked adequate prenatal and obstetric care. Rankin worked with the Children’s Bureau to develop pioneering legislation, H.R. 12634, that would address these issues: The bill proposed cooperation between the states and federal government to provide education in maternal and infant hygiene, funding for visiting nurses in rural areas and hospital care for new mothers, and consultation centers for mothers. It would have become the nation’s first federal welfare program.
Unfortunately, the bill never made it to the floor. However, after Rankin had left the House, Senator Morris Sheppard and Representative Horace Towner resubmitted a (somewhat watered-down) version of her legislation in 1920. Thanks largely to the urging of women’s groups—who now represented millions of new voters—President Harding endorsed it, and Rankin lobbied for the offspring of her legislation while working for the National Consumers League. President Harding signed the Sheppard-Towner Act into law on November 23, 1921. (Unfortunately, thanks to opposition from the American Medical Association and other powerful interests, it wasn’t renewed by Congress in 1927 and was defunded in 1929.)
9. SHE SPENT THE BULK OF HER LIFE AS A PEACE ACTIVIST.
After Rankin's election, the Montana legislature divided the state geographically into two congressional districts. This made reelection essentially impossible for Rankin, as she lived in the Democrat-heavy western district, cut off from her base of farmers in the eastern part of the state. In order to be able to campaign statewide, Rankin ran for the Senate in 1918, instead of running for reelection to the House. She lost the Republican primary and entered the general election as a candidate for the National Party, but fell far short of the votes needed to win. Rankin left Congress in 1919 after serving a single term.
After leaving Congress, Rankin worked for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom for several years and then co-founded the Georgia Peace Society. She also spent five months in 1929 working for the Women’s Peace Union, a radical pacifist organization that wanted to eliminate war by passing a constitutional amendment rendering it illegal. But they were too extreme even for Rankin, who moved on to the National Council for the Prevention of War. Then, in 1940, she decided to take another stab at politics, running to reclaim her Montana congressional seat. Thanks to endorsements from prominent Republicans like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, she won, rejoining Congress over 20 years after finishing her first term.
But as fate would have it, Rankin found herself, once again, in the position of voting on a declaration of war. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress gathered to officially declare war on Japan. Once again, Rankin voted “nay”—the only lawmaker in either house of Congress to do so. When she declared, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” a chorus of hisses and boos arose from the House gallery. Journalists mobbed her as she tried to leave the chambers, and Rankin hid in the House cloakroom until Capitol policemen arrived to escort her safely back to her office.
There was no way for Rankin to recover politically, and she declined to seek a second term. But she continued in peace activism into her old age, leading thousands of women—called the Jeannette Rankin Brigade—in a protest against the Vietnam War in 1968. Then in her nineties, Rankin was contemplating another run for the House when she died in 1973.
Additional Sources: Interview with Jeannette Rankin, Suffragists Oral History Project, University of California, 1972; “Jeannette Rankin, Progressive-Isolationist.” Doctoral Dissertation, Princeton University, 1959; “Visuality in Woman Suffrage Discourse & the Construction of Jeannette Rankin as National Symbol of Enfranchised American Womanhood,” Master’s Thesis, Empire State College SUNY, 2011.