November 7, 2012
On Nov. 7, 1916, Jeannette Pickering Rankin was elected as a member of the House of Representatives for Montana’s at-large district.
She was the first woman elected to Congress.
Rankin was born in Missoula, Montana Territory, on June 11, 1880 (Montana became a state on Nov. 8, 1889). She was one of seven children, and grew up both in town, in a fine house her father built (the first in Missoula with running water and central heating), and, in the summers, on the family ranch in Grant Creek. Her dream, inspired by the tales of Florence Nightingale, was to be a nurse, to take care of and help people.
In Norma Smith’s biography, “Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience,” which evolved from eight years of interviews with Rankin, Smith relates a tale from English class. Rankin described herself as a shy young woman, but recalled when she began emerging from that shell. The English teacher as her to read along Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of Light Brigade,” when she got to:
“Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die. Into the valley of death Rode the six hundred.”
Rankin stopped her reading and angrily said, “This is hideous. I can’t read it.” The seeds of her later pacifism were sprouting.
In 1902, she graduated with a degree in biology from the relatively new University of Montana, which had opened in Missoula in 1895. The graduating class numbered 18.
She got her teaching certificate and taught in Grant Creek and then in Whitehall, but she failed the test to renew her certificate and moved to Missoula to work in a department store. When her father contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever, she quit to nurse him. He died in May 1904.
With her brother Wellington, who was attending Harvard University, she toured the East, visiting Chicago, Boston, Washington, and eventually began working as a nurse on the Lower East Side of New York City. Surrounded by poverty and deprivation, Rankin was motivated, not depressed, and came to believe that social workers could do more than nurses to help people. She enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy, whose creed was “not that the creation of a favorable environment will of itself transform character, but that the normal man, who is now crushed, will under favorable conditions, rise unaided.” A creed of optimism, opposing the more popular views of social Darwinism that saw the poor as unfit, and that aid to the poor would but increase their number. The school exposed Rankin and her fellow students to interesting guest lecturers such as, Louis Brandeis, Booker T. Washington, Judge Ben Lindsey, and Florence Kelly.
Rankin graduated in 1909, and took a job at the Washington Children’s Home Society. Where she worked with the needy children, instead of a management job she expected (only the men received those jobs). She recalled the pain of too many failures. Of the 286 children the society placed in homes, 113 were returned to society care and 13 died in foster care; and the Washington society was considered a model organization in child welfare. In 1910, she quit and started attending classes at the University of Washington.
She was recruited to work for the Washington referendum for suffrage. In this work, she found her voice, and a political mentor in former Denver journalist Minnie J. Reynolds, who taught Rankin not to be distracted by side issues, to focus on one issue exclusively. The suffrage movement continually sputtered because of the real, and perceived ties, to temperance. The Washington movement did not get sidetracked; Rankin became an excellent speaker prepared for political success, a fixture in the national suffrage movement. She went to work for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, directing the successful campaign for women’s suffrage in North Dakota. She returned to Montana to work for suffrage, which passed in 1914.
She shared a core belief with suffragists that federal government ineptitude and corruption was directly related to absence of women in the process, and in 1916, with the help of her brother, Wellington, who was a powerful Republican, she was elected as Montana’s at-large representative to Congress.
Her election was celebrated across America, but many of her supporters, and fellow suffragists, thought her vote against the United States entering World War I damaged her political future. Fifty representatives voted against the resolution supporting American intervention. Rankin said, "I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it."
In 1918, she was defeated in the Republican primary for Montana’s Senate seat, and ran as independent. She finished third, with 23 percent of the votes. Incumbent Thomas Walsh, a Democrat, won with 41 percent.
After her defeat, she joined the Florence Kelly’s National Consumers League, and then worked for a number of peace organizations.
In 1940, she was elected to Congress on an anti-war plank. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war. She did not run for re-election.
She maintained her efforts against war, for peace, and for women’s rights. She died in Carmel, California, on May 18, 1973.