100 Years Ago Today, Jeannette Rankin Was Elected as First U.S. Congresswoman

On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist from Montana, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first woman in the history of this nation to win a seat in the United States Congress. When she was elected, she said:“I may be the first woman member of Congress . . . But I won’t be the last.” Today, 104 women hold seats in the United States Congress. 20 women serve in the U.S. Senate and 84 serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

Who Was Jeannette Rankin?

Jeannette Rankin, the eldest daughter of a rancher and a schoolteacher, was born near Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880. She graduated from Montana State University (now the University of Montana) in 1902 and attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later the Columbia University School of Social Work). After a brief period as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, Rankin entered the University of Washington in Seattle. It was there that she joined the woman suffrage movement, a campaign that achieved its goal in Washington State in 1910. Rankin became a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her speaking and organizing efforts helped Montana women gain the vote in 1914.

When Rankin decided in 1916 to run for a House seat from Montana, she had two key advantages: her reputation as a suffragist and her politically well-connected brother, Wellington, who financed her campaign. Some national woman suffrage leaders feared she would lose and hurt the cause. The novelty of a woman running for Congress, however, helped Rankin secure a GOP nomination for one of Montana’s two At-Large House seats on August 29, 1916. Rankin ran as a progressive, pledging to work for a constitutional woman suffrage amendment and emphasizing social welfare issues. Long a committed pacifist, she did not shy away from letting voters know how she felt about possible U.S. participation in the European war that had been raging for two years: “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.” Rankin came in second, winning one of Montana’s seats. She trailed the frontrunner, Democratic Representative John M. Evans, by 7,600 votes, but she topped the next candidate— another Democrat–by 6,000 votes. Rankin ran a nonpartisan campaign in a Democratic state during a period of national hostility toward parties in general. And this was the first opportunity for Montana women to vote in a federal election. “I am deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon me,” read her public victory statement.

Rankin and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage

As the first woman Member, Rankin was on the front lines of the national suffrage fight. During the fall of 1917 she advocated the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage and, when it was created, she was appointed to it. When the special committee reported out a constitutional amendment on woman suffrage in January 1918, Rankin opened the very first House Floor debate on this subject. “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen,” she asked. “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” The resolution narrowly passed the House amid the cheers of women in the galleries, but it died in the Senate.

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