Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin, a social reformer, woman suffrage activist, and pacifist, became, on November 7, 1916, the first American woman ever elected to Congress. In that term, she voted against US entry into World War I. She later served a second term and voted against US entry into World War II, the only person in Congress to vote against both wars.

Jeannette Rankin lived from June 11, 1880 to May 18, 1973, long enough to see the beginnings of a new feminist phase of activism.

"If I had my life to live over, I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier." - Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin Biography

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born on June 11, 1880. Her father, John Rankin, was a rancher, developer and lumber merchant in Montana. Her mother, Olive Pickering, a former schoolteacher. She spent her first years on the ranch, then moved with the family to Missoula where she attended public school. She was the oldest of eleven children, seven of whom survived childhood.

Education and Social Work:

Rankin attended Montana State University at Missoula and graduated in 1902 with a bachelor of science degree in biology. She worked as a schoolteacher, and seamstress and studied furniture design, looking for some work to which she could commit herself. When her father died in 1902, he left money to Rankin, paid out over her lifetime.

On a long trip to Boston in 1904 to visit with her brother at Harvard and with other relatives, she was inspired by slum conditions to take up the new field of social work. She became a resident in a San Francisco Settlement House for four months, then entered the New York School of Philanthropy (later, to become the Columbia School of Social Work). She returned to the west to become a social worker in Spokane, Washington, in a children's home. Social work did not, however, hold her interest long -- she only lasted a few weeks at the children's home.

Jeannette Rankin and Women's Rights:

Next, Rankin studied at the University of Washington in Seattle and became involved in the woman suffrage movement in 1910. Visiting Montana, Rankin became the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature, where she surprised the spectators and legislators alike with her speaking ability. She organized and spoke for the Equal Franchise Society.

Rankin then moved to New York, and continued her work on behalf of women's rights. During these years, she began her lifelong relationship with Katherine Anthony. Rankin went to work for the New York Woman Suffrage Party and in 1912 she became the field secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

Rankin and Anthony were among the thousands of suffragists at the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, D.C., before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.

Rankin returned to Montana to help organize the successful Montana suffrage campaign in 1914. To do so, she gave up her position with the NAWSA.

Working for Peace and Election to Congress:

As war in Europe loomed, Rankin turned her attention to work for peace, and in 1916, ran for one of the two seats in Congress from Montana as a Republican. Her brother served as campaign manager and helped finance the campaign. Jeannette Rankin won, though the papers first reported that she lost the election -- and Jeannette Rankin thus became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, and the first woman elected to a national legislature in any western democracy.

Rankin used her fame and notoriety in this "famous first" position to work for peace and women's rights and against child labor, and to write a weekly newspaper column.

Only four days after taking office, Jeannette Rankin made history in yet another way: she voted against U.S. entry into World War I. She violated protocol by speaking during the roll call before casting her vote, announcing "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war." Some of her colleagues in NAWSA -- notably Carrie Chapman Catt -- criticized her vote as opening the suffrage cause to criticism as impractical and sentimental.

Rankin did vote, later in her term, for several pro-war measures, as well as working for the political reforms including civil liberties, suffrage, birth control, equal pay and child welfare. In 1917, she opened the congressional debate on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which passed the House in 1917 and the Senate in 1918, to become the 19th Amendment after it was ratified by the states.

But Rankin's first anti-war vote sealed her political fate. When she was gerrymandered out of her district, she ran for the Senate, lost the primary, launched a third party race, and lost overwhelmingly.

After World War I:

After the war ended, Rankin continued to work for peace through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and also began work for the National Consumers' League. She worked, at the same time, on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union.

After a brief return to Montana to help her brother run -- unsuccessfully -- for the Senate, she moved to a farm in Georgia. She returned to Montana every summer, her legal residence.

From her base in Georgia, Jeannette Rankin became Field Secretary of the WILPF and lobbied for peace. When she left the WILPF she formed the Georgia Peace Society. She lobbied for the Women's Peace Union, working for an antiwar constitutional amendment. She left the Peace Union, and began working with the National Council for the Prevention of War. She also lobbied for American cooperation with the World Court and for labor reforms and an end to child labor, including working for passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, a bill she had originally introduced into Congress. Her work for a constitutional amendment to end child labor was less successful.

In 1935, when a college in Georgia offered her the position of Peace Chair, she was accused of being a Communist, and ended up filing a libel suit against the Macon newspaper that had spread the accusation. The court eventually declared her, as she said, "a nice lady."

In the first half of 1937, she spoke in 10 states, giving 93 speeches for peace. She supported the America First Committee, but decided that lobbying was not the most effective way to work for peace. By 1939, she had returned to Montana and was running for Congress again, supporting a strong but neutral America in yet another time of impending war. Her brother once again contributed financial support for her candidacy.

Elected to Congress, Again:

Elected with a small plurality, Jeannette Rankin arrived in Washington in January as one of six women in the House, two in the Senate. When, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress voted to declare war against Japan, Jeannette Rankin once again voted "no" to war. She also, once again, violated long tradition and spoke before her roll call vote, this time saying "As a woman I can't go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else" as she voted alone against the war resolution. She was denounced by the press and her colleagues, and barely escaped an angry mob. She believed that Roosevelt had deliberately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After Second Term in Congress:

In 1943, Rankin went back to Montana rather than run for Congress again (and surely be defeated). She took care of her ailing mother and traveled worldwide, including to India and Turkey, promoting peace, and tried to found a woman's commune on her Georgia farm. In 1968, she led more than five thousand women in a protest in Washington, DC, demanding the U.S. withdraw from Vietnam, heading up the group calling itself the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. She was active in the antiwar movement, often invited to speak or honored by the young antiwar activists and feminists.

Jeannette Rankin died in 1973 in California.

About Jeannette Rankin

  • Categories: suffragist, congresswoman, pacifist, peace activist, reformer
  • Organizational Affiliations: NAWSA, WILPF, National Consumers League, Georgia Peace Society, Jeanette Rankin Brigade
  • Places: Montana, Georgia, United States
  • Period: 20th century

Print Bibliography

  • Davidson, Sue. A Heart in Politics: Jeannette Rankin and Patsy T. Mink. 1994.
  • Giles, Kevin. Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin. 1980.
  • Josephson, Hannah Geffen. Jeannette Rankin: First Lady in Congress. 1974.
  • Lopach, James J. Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman. 2016.
  • Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin, America's Conscience. 2002.
  • O'Brien, Mary Barmeyer. Jeannette Rankin: 1880-1973: Bright Star in the Big Sky. 1995. Young Adult.

Also known as: Jeanette Rankin, Jeannette Pickering Rankin