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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Ling

Jeannette Rankin: The Peoples' Representative

Jeannette Rankin (June 11, 1880 – May 18, 1973)

We begin today’s Women’s History badass with a shoutout to Lauren Gunderson and Ari Afsar: these contemporary phenomenal women are who reminded me of Jeannette Rankin, currently developing a new musical that tells her story. They’re a nearly unbeatable trio, if I do say so myself, comprised of artistry and activism to an exponential degree.

So let’s talk about their complicated first.

Jeannette Rankin—a “tireless activist who worked to expand voting rights for women, to ensure better working conditions for laborers across America, and to improve health care for women and infants”—was born on June 11, 1880, the eldest of a prosperous ranching family in Montana Territory. She spent her childhood on her father’s Grant Creek Ranch, close to Missoula; she quickly grew to hold education close to her heart, with a former schoolteacher as a mother. In 1902, she graduated from Montana State University with a degree in biology, and promptly followed in her mother’s footsteps. Shortly after beginning her teaching career, however, she apprenticed herself to a seamstress.

Two years later, Rankin’s father passed away. To aid in her grieving, she traveled to San Francisco to visit an uncle, and found herself volunteering at the Telegraph Hill Settlement House. Her experience there, working with those fighting generational poverty, sparked her interest in philanthropic social work. In 1908, she followed that passion to the New York School of Philanthropy, graduating the following year. During her time in the City, Rankin formed close friendships with the anarchists, free love advocates, and birth control revolutionaries within Greenwich Village. Their radical ideas, and her relationships with them, would shape the remainder of her life (more on that later).

After graduation, Rankin moved back West to Spokane, Washington, accepting a job teaching impoverished children. It was here that the work we truly know her for came to fruition. Between 1909 and 1910, Rankin began taking classes in the social sciences, aiming to become a reform advocate; simultaneously, she served as a student volunteer with Washington’s local women’s suffrage campaigners, going so far as to prepare and present the referendum on voting rights. The fight was successful. Following the granting of woman’s suffrage in the state, Rankin was hired as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Until 1914, she proceeded to travel the country advocating for suffrage: described as “luminous” by one reporter, she was known for her autonomy, intellect, and beauty.

In late 1910, Rankin discovered that Montana’s plan to introduce a suffrage bill was actually part of an elaborate hoax to draw voters. She convinced a legislator to introduce it, anyway, and, in February 1911, she was the first woman to address the Montana State Legislature, speaking in support of suffrage. When it passed into law on November 3, 1914, many credited Rankin’s advocacy for its success.

Two years later, on July 13, 1916, Rankin declared her candidacy for one of Montana’s At-Large House seats. At the time, most of the press didn’t pay attention to her campaign, for two reasons: 1) there were hundreds of women running for office in the West at the time; and 2) Anaconda Copper Co., the largest employer in Montana, owned the majority of the newspapers and condemned the running of a woman.

Not all men deplored her, though. Rankin’s campaign was financed by her brother, Wellington, an independently wealthy man of some social status. Her platform focused primarily on domestic issues, including nationwide suffrage, child welfare legislation, pacifism, and alcohol prohibition. She was a brilliant strategist and incredible organizer, focusing on retail politics (catering to individual voters and small groups) and intentionally courting Republican men and Democratic women. She was victorious. In August 1916, Jeannette Rankin won the Republican primary by over 7,000 votes. In November of the same, she became the first woman elected to Congress. Though the press refused to acknowledge her win for two days, Rankin had made history.

After those forty-eight were up, Rankin was bombarded by the press. They critiqued every aspect of her: her clothes, her hair, the recipes she cooked, her relationship status, everything except her policies and beliefs (this may sound rather familiar…because it is). She chose to take advantage of this game, utilizing the media circus to educate on civic issues and draw attention to women in politics. The light under her was further stoked by the stream of letters she received from American women, speaking of abusive marriage, horrific work conditions, and severe misogyny and prejudice. She struck a deal to give a national lecture series about it, but her travel was cut short by President Wilson calling Congress to session eight months early. World War I was in full swing, and they needed to address German submarine warfare.

On April 2, 1917, the very first woman elected to Congress was welcomed to DC with much pomp and circumstance: a banquet, sustained applause, a parade. The wife of one Representative observed, with absurd contradiction: “I rejoiced to see that she met each one with a . . . frank smile and shook hands cordially and unaffectedly. It would have been sickening if she had smirked or giggled or been coquettish; worse still if she had been masculine and hail-fellowish. She was just a sensible young woman going about her business.”

That same day, Rankin introduced her first bill: H.J. Res. 3, crafted to guarantee and protect women’s suffrage under the Constitution. It was overshadowed by the war debates that began that evening. Rankin, under advisement by her suffragist supporters, sat out of the debates, a choice she later regretted. She found her voice again on April 6, 1917, when she said: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.” The pacifist representative had arrived. Though her Montanan constituents were supportive of her anti-war stance, NAWSA distanced themselves from Rankin, and one newspaper proclaimed her to be “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.”

After the Declaration of War was announced, Rankin worked tirelessly to provide supplies for those at home and abroad. This led her to fight ever more intensely for workers’ rights. Two I’d personally like to highlight, both occurring in 1917:

  • Following the deaths of too many men in a Montana mine, the lynching of their labor leader, the refusal of negotiations by Anaconda (yes, that Anaconda), Rankin introduced legislation for a government overtaking of the mines and their management. Though she didn’t win, she did gain the loyalty of working class voters, and many cheered her on.

  • After receiving word of the abusive treatment of female workers in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (sixteen hours with no breaks, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment), Rankin encouraged an investigation. That investigation was carried out by PI Elizabeth Watson, and the two women were primarily responsible for the institution of eight-hour workdays in the Bureau.

In early fall of 1917, Rankin endorsed a fellow representative’s proposal for a House Committee on Woman Suffrage. This would allow the House to bypass the Judiciary Committee, which had traditionally killed the vote on suffrage. By September 24, Rankin was named a Ranking Member of the newly-founded Committee. In January of 1918, she opened the suffrage debate on the House floor and acted as manager. These debates became the first time a suffrage amendment had passed in either congressional chamber, though it died in the Senate in 1918. The following year, it would be passed in both, eventually ratified to make it the 19th Amendment.

While Rankin was fighting for women’s rights on the House floor, Montana was abolishing hers. A late 1917 restructuring of voting districts led to the pitting of Rankin against her Democratic seatmate. Though this gerrymandering had been proposed before Rankin’s election, many argue that her victory hastened the passage of it. As the Congresswoman herself said, “There are more ways of keeping women out of Congress than denying them the ballot.” Therefore, in July 1918, she announced her candidacy for the Senate. She lost.

Following her leavetaking of the House, Rankin remained active in her causes. She attended the 1919 Women’s International Conference for Permanent Peace in Switzerland; she joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and she became a lobbyist for social welfare legislation, working for the National Consumers’ League. Her intellect had clearly not died.

In 1924, Rankin resigned from her lobbyist work and moved to Athens, Georgia. She built a one-room house, and lived without electricity, running water, or a telephone. While there, she organized a study group on antiwar policy, which eventually grew into the Georgia Peace Society. In the early 1930s, she took a job with the National Council for the Prevention of War, only to resign in 1939 due to opposing FDR.

And then, guess what?

In 1940, with World War II looming on the horizon, Rankin returned to Montana to challenge the anti-Semite currently in Congress. She won with 54% of the vote. This time, she served in the House alongside six other women. Once again, she was a vocal pacifist: she attempted to propose various amendments to the Lend-Lease Bill that would require specific congressional approval to send troops overseas. Following Pearl Harbor, she voted no amongst a chorus of boos: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” She was viciously condemned for this, requiring police escorts for safety, shunned by her colleagues and the press, and exiled by her constituency.

She did not run for reelection.

Following her time in Congress, Rankin returned to Montana until her mother’s death in 1947. She then split time between Montana and Georgia, and began to travel the world. She was relentless in her exposing of America’s exploitation of overseas workers. In 1968, at the age of 87, she led a protest march against the Vietnam War, presenting a peace petition to Congress. In 1972, she was honored by the National Organization for Women as a “World’s outstanding living feminist.”

On May 18, 1973, Jeannette Rankin passed away in Carmel, California. She had been considering another political run. Her will stated that the proceeds of her Georgia estate would go to “mature, unemployed women workers.”

Before I let you go (and props to you if you made it this far), there are a few things I want to address about Jeannette Rankin:

  1. She was not an effective legislator. This was primarily for reasons outside of her control, but should be acknowledged, nonetheless. She lived primarily off Wellington’s money. She utilized racist rhetoric in many speeches. She was notoriously headstrong and difficult to work with, though her stubbornness meant that she always stood her ground for causes she believed in.

  2. To this day, Jeannette Rankin is the only woman to have been elected from Montana.

  3. Jeannette Rankin may very well have been the first queer female elected to Congress. She never married a man. She never had close relationships with men. She held deeply intimate relationships with the women she met in Greenwich Village (I told you more to come!): her letters to them included sexual references, lewd terminology, and sweet nothings that could rival Shakespeare. It’s likely that she would identify as either lesbian or bisexual. Important to note here, as well, that Rankin wasn’t necessarily hiding this part of her identity. She was just being strategic. That queer terminology wasn’t commonly used to describe oneself at the time, romantic friendships between women were still largely accepted, and her demographic kept her from talking of her personal relationships much. She just didn’t see the point. Still, I think it’s fascinating to know.

“It is beautiful and right that a mother should nurse her child through typhoid fever, but it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which the typhoid resulted.”

- Jeannette Rankin, Speech to Montana Legislature, 1911 -

“I am deeply conscious of the responsibility, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to be the first woman to sit in Congress. I will not only represent the women of Montana, but also the women of the country, and I have plenty of work cut out for me.”

- Jeannette Rankin, Following Her Election, 1917 -

“How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen? 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?”

- Jeannette Rankin, Opening of Debates, 1918 -

She would do it all again, “but this time I’d be nastier.”

- Jeannette Rankin, The New York Times

Sources/For More Info: “Jeannette Rankin” from the Archives of the United States House of Representatives, “History of Jeannette Rankin” from the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, “Jeannette Rankin” from Iowa State University, “Jeannette Rankin: Pacifism and Public Service” from the New York Historical Society, “The First Queer Woman in Congress” from Nancy at WNYC, Hardaway’s “Jeannette Rankin: The Early Years” from North Dakota Quarterly: 1980

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