First In Their Field: Jeannette Rankin

It is astounding to think how the first United States Congresswoman,  Jeannette Rankin, was elected to office at a time when women across the country were still not guaranteed the right to vote. 

“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” – Jeannette Rankin on her election to office in 1916

Rankin was born on a ranch outside of Missoula in Montana on June 11, 1880.  She attended Montana State University and later the New York School of Philanthropy. She started off her career as a social worker and became very active in the Suffrage Movement. Rankin was a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association and helped women in Montana gain their right to vote in 1914.

Rankincard2-330.jpgRankin decided to run for office in 1916 for one of the open Montana House seats. In total, she ended up serving two terms in Congress, in 1917-1919 and in 1941-1942. She served a memorable two terms as a passionate suffragist. Rankin was instrumental in passing the 19th amendment, ensuring that women across the country would be able to vote. Rankin, as the only women in Congress, was instrumental in passing the 19th amendment, which was ultimately passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920. She was appointed the head of Committee of Women’s Suffrage and she opened up the very first House floor debate on the 19th amendment by questioning the Congressmen’s commitment to democracy: “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen? How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

Rankin was also an extremely committed pacifist. Rankin was the only member of Congress that voted against entering both World War I and World War II. While voting against WWI she broke House rules and made a speech  “I want to stand by my country,” She said, “but I cannot vote for war, I vote no”. While in the minority of the votes she was not alone in the belief that the US should stay out of the 610px-Jeannette_Rankin_cph.3b13863.jpgfirst world war. WWII, on the other hand, was a different story. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation rallied together in pro-war sentiments. Rankin would not compromise her pacifist ideals and voted against the war. When she voted ‘No’ there was a chorus of boos and hisses aimed at her. The resolution to go to war passed 388 votes to 1.

Jeannette Rankin died in Carmel, California on May 18, 1973.

Women are still largely underrepresented in politics but thanks to women like Jeannette Rankin the ceiling has been cracked. As of 2016 nearly 20% of Congress is comprised of women. Hopefully one day soon the number will reach 50%.

Melissa Jones, Social Media and Digital Content
Want to learn more about women who were first in their field by visiting the Women’s Museum of California’s online exhibit.

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