Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born June 11, 1880 near Missoula, Montana.
She was the oldest of six children. As a child, Rankin gained a reputation for doing things most other girls didn’t. She often helped ranch hands with machinery, and once single-handedly built a sidewalk to help her father rent out a building.
Rankin graduated from high school in 1898, and in 1902 graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology.
Undecided about what to do next, Rankin tried dressmaking and furniture design but neither suited her. She also turned down several marriage proposals.
Rankin then attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later part of Columbia University) from 1908 to 1909, before moving to Spokane, Washington.
After briefly serving as a social worker she attended the University of Washington and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement.
She became an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), facilitating suffrage victories in both Washington and Montana.
Rankin believed, along with many suffragists of the period, that the corruption and dysfunction of the United States government was due to a lack of feminine participation.
First Woman elected to Congress
Rankin’s brother Wellington, a powerful man in the Montana Republican Party, financed and helped manage her first campaign for the Congressional election of 1916.
Her campaign involved traveling long distances to reach the large state’s scattered population.
Rankin rallied support at train stations, street corners, potluck suppers, and one-room schoolhouses. On the evening of the election, the Missoula daily newspaper reported her as having almost certainly lost. But results continued to trickle in over the next several days, and Rankin eventually won by over 7,500 votes.
On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected to Montana’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first female member of Congress. Later, she is noted for saying,
“I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last.”
During her term in the 65th Congress women did not have universal suffrage, but many were voting in some form in about forty states, including Montana.
“If I am remembered for no other act,” Rankin said, “I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
Just after her term began the House held a vote on whether to enter World War I. Rankin cast one of fifty votes against the resolution, later saying, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it.”
Some considered Rankin’s vote to be a discredit to the suffragist movement and to Rankin’s authority in Congress. But others, including Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party and Representative Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, applauded it.
On June 8, 1917 the Speculator Mine disaster in Butte left 168 miners dead and a massive protest strike over working conditions ensued. Rankin intervened, but mining companies refused to meet with her or the miners and proposed legislation was unsuccessful.
During Rankin’s first term, Montana legislature restructured its voting districts and she found herself in an overwhelmingly Democratic one. She decided to run for the U.S. Senate and finished second in the Republican primary. She campaigned on a third-party ticket and finished a disappointing third.
In 1919, Rankin bought property in Georgia, where she organized social clubs for children, formed the Georgia Peace Society, and gave lectures on pacifism.
She also worked as a field secretary for the National Consumers League and as a lobbyist and propagandist for the National Council for the Prevention of War.
Rankin argued for the passage of a constitutional amendment banning child labor and the Sheppard-Towner Act, the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children. The legislation was enacted in 1921 but repealed just eight years later.
Second Congressional term
Rankin was elected to Congress again in 1940, defeating incumbent Republican representative Jacob Thorkelson, an outspoken anti-Semite.
She was appointed to the Committee on Public Lands and the Committee on Insular Affairs. World War II was raging in Europe, and another debate on U.S. involvement had broken out.
Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against entering WWII following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hisses could be heard from the gallery when Rankin cast the vote and several colleagues asked her to change it to make the war declaration unanimous, but she refused.
“As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”
After the vote an angry mob followed her, and she was forced to hide in a telephone booth and call congressional police to rescue her.
Life after Congress
Over the next twenty years Rankin traveled the world, frequently visiting India, where she studied the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
In the 1960s and 1970s new waves of pacifists, feminists, and civil rights advocates idolized Rankin and embraced her efforts in ways that her generation didn’t.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam mobilized her once again.
In January 1968 she established the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and led five thousand marchers in Washington, D.C. to protest the war, culminating in the presentation of a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts.
Death and legacy
Rankin died of natural causes on May 18, 1973 in Carmel, California. She had been considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.
A statue of Rankin was placed in the United States Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 1985.
At the dedication, historian Joan Hoff-Wilson called her “one of the most controversial and unique women in Montana and American political history.
A replica stands in Montana’s capitol, and the words “I Cannot Vote For War” are carved into the bases of both.
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