may be the first woman member of Congress,” |
said Rankin in 1916, “but I won’t be the last.”
On this day in 1916 Jeanette Rankin (1880–1973) became the first woman elected to Congress (1917–1919, 1941–1943)
Jeanette Rankin was born on a ranch in Missoula, Montana, in 1880. She graduated from the University of Montana in 1902, then studied social work at the New York School of Philanthropy. She moved to Seattle and began a career as a social worker. At this time she also became active in the suffrage movement. She campaigned for state-level suffrage in several states before becoming a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1913. For the two years she traveled across 15 states to raise support for women’s right to vote.
Montana adopted woman suffrage in 1914, so after her suffrage tour she returned to her home state. She ran for representative in Congress on a platform of child welfare reform, pacifism, and Prohibition. In 1916 Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress—at a time when women lacked suffrage on a national level. While in office she worked toward a woman’s suffrage amendment for the U.S. Constitution, pushed a bill through Congress giving married women citizenship independent of their husbands, and sponsored legislation on providing government-sponsored instruction on hygiene and health care for pregnant and nursing mothers.
Rankin was also an ardent pacifist, a position which would cost her re-election. She was one of 49 members of Congress who voted against entry into World War I.
|Rankin addressing a crowd in Washington, D. C., in 1917|
After losing her bid for re-election, Rankin took up both her feminism and pacifism with renewed zeal. She returned also to social welfare work, advocating for the welfare of workers, especially woman workers, and for an end to child labor.
Rankin was elected to another term in Congress in 1940. Once again, her pacifism cost her politically. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Rankin was alone in her opposition to entry into World War II. “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Her career as a public servant effectively ended the moment she cast her NO vote. (She had to hide in a phone booth until a police escort arrived to see her safely back to her office.) “I have nothing left but my integrity,” she told friends in private.
She never ran for office again, but instead continued her feminist activities (she even tried to found a women’s commune in Georgia in the 1960s) and pacifist activities. She traveled to India seven times during 1946–1971 to study the tactics of Mohandis Gandhi. She opposed the war in Korea, U.S. meddling in developing countries, and the Vietnam War. In 1968, when she was 87, she led a group of 5,000 radical women (the “Jeanetter Rankin Brigade”) in a march on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. Shortly before she passed away in 1973 she was considering running for office again on an anti-war platform.