The First But Not the Last: Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

Sharon Sprung
Sharon Sprung

The First But Not the Last: Jeannette Rankin

Born near Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880 just nine years before Montana became a state, she was the eldest of six children. She helped to care for her siblings as well as work on and operate the machinery on her parents’ farm. She even single-handedly built a wooden sidewalk for a building her father was trying to rent out. Work like this made Jeannette wonder why women could work just as hard as men, but still weren’t allowed to vote.

Several different men proposed marriage to Jeannette but she turned them all down; having raised her six siblings, she knew that motherhood wasn’t for her, and she feared that if she married she would have to give up her freedom.

She showed promise in architecture and furniture design and would have done very well in either industry except for one thing: she was a woman, and women weren’t allowed or encouraged to work those sorts of jobs.

Jeannette graduated from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology, but instead had to work as a seamstress, teacher and social worker, as those were the only jobs available to women. This further strengthened Jeannette’s resolve to improve the lives of women around the world, and she became very active in the suffragist movement. Once, while speaking before Montana politicians (all men) on why women should be allowed to vote and have freedoms and rights equal to a man, one politician decided to offer his own thoughts on the subject …

He threw a glass of water into Jeannette’s face!

Shocked and enraged, Jeannette shouted that one day women would vote him out of office. He might have scoffed at her threat, but he likely became very nervous when in 1914 Montana granted women unrestricted voting rights.

Four years following the assault, Jeannette decided that she would run for Congress as a Republican reformist and pacifist. Her family stood proudly behind her, with her sisters leaving home to campaign for her, and her wealthy brother Wellington serving as her manager and advisor. Most of her would-be constituents thought that she didn’t stand a chance, but in 1916 Jeannette ran against seven male opponents—and won. She won by 7,500 votes and proudly said, "I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last."

The day after she won the election, reporters and photographers from all over the country mobbed her house, desperate for an interview. They wanted know if she was some kind of freak—what did she look like? And most importantly, could she cook?

Jeannette faced some unique problems when she arrived in Washington D.C., such as the lack of women’s restrooms anywhere. The wives of her fellow Congressmen were greatly intimidated by her until Jeannette gently explained that she was, “just a sensible young woman going about her business.” To avoid the inevitable harassment from male colleagues, Jeannette would sit next to the oldest man in the room—older gentlemen wouldn’t permit anyone to insult a lady, and they were too well-mannered to say anything to her either. She was invited to speak at high schools about women in politics, though boys laughed at her when she said that one day, a woman would become President of the United States. The snickering ended abruptly when she added that, “Someday one of you may be the husband of a president.” She also pushed for women’s equal representation in the government.

Jeannette’s career as Congressman (“Congresswoman” wasn’t invented yet) had barely begun when the war raging in Europe finally reached the United States; at the time the United States had opted to remain neutral in the war, but German U-boats had been sinking American vessels on suspicion of smuggling ammunition and supplies to England and France. The sinking of the five American ships in March, 1917, was the final straw for the United States, and on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war.

On her sixth day of service, Jeannette became one of the 56 most unpopular Congressmen when she voted against joining what would later become known as World War I. When asked why she had voted against going to war, Jeannette answered, “I felt that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” Save for that one vote, Jeannette fully supported the actions of the United States afterwards, and even had the honor of introducing the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote in the United States) and seeing it ratified. She said, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever gave women the right to vote.” As grateful as the women of the United States might have been to her, it wasn’t enough to save her seat. She lost the following two elections.

Still, Jeannette wouldn’t quit. Determined, she ran a third time and at almost 60 years of age, won the reelection to Congress. Unfortunately, history repeated itself; on December 7, 1941, the Japanese empire attacked and sank the United States’ fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In response to the attack and the war raging in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested Congress to declare war on Japan and Germany. Of the 389 Congressmen who voted, only one voted against going to war: Jeannette Rankin. Again, incredulous people asked her why she voted against going to war, and this time Jeannette replied, “As a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send someone else.”

As legitimate and understandable as her response may have been, patriotic furor ran high in the United States, and people resented that Jeannette wouldn’t want to avenge the deaths of those who died at Pearl Harbor, or stop the growing Nazi plague that was swallowing Europe. One day an angry mob gathered around Jeannette, forcing her to seek refuge in a telephone booth. There she called for police to come and escort her back to her office.

By now the damage was done, and Jeannette’s political career was over. Frustrated and disappointed, Jeannette wanted to find new ways of helping people and bringing peace to the world. On a trip to India, Jeannette discovered Mohandas Gandhi and not only was she inspired by his message of non-violent protest, she became obsessed with him. She dedicated the next twenty years of her life to achieving world peace. In 1967 at 87 years old, Jeannette led a silent march of 5000 women to protest the Vietnam War.

Jeannette was tempted to run for Congress for a fourth time, but thought better of it, retiring to live in rural Georgia with her little dachshund Sam. When she was asked what she would do differently in her life she had the chance to do it all over again, Jeannette replied that she’d do everything the same, only this time, “I’d be nastier.”

Jeannette Rankin died on May 18, 1973, in Carmel, California. She was 92 years old. In her will Jeannette bequeathed her estate to “mature, unemployed women workers,” and in 1978 the Jeannette Rankin Foundation (now the Jeannette Rankin Scholarship Fund) was formed, and has awarded $1.8 million dollars in scholarships to women. In 1985, a statue of Jeannette Rankin titled, “I Cannot Vote for War” was installed in United States Capitol's Statuary Hall, and a duplicate also stands in Montana’s capitol building.

Jeannette Rankin works cited:

Lives of Extraordinary Women, by Kathleen Krull

“Jeannette Rankin,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannette_Rankin

“Jeannette Rankin,” http://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/jeannette-rankin

Jeannette Rankin Scholarship Fund

http://www.rankinfoundation.org/

History, Art & Archives; United States House of Representatives http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-%28R000055%29/

Jeannette Rankin

"I Cannot Vote for War" Statue of Jeannette Rankin

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