Jeanette Rankin is probably best known for being the first woman elected to the United States Congress, but few people know that she began her life of public service as a suffragist, a campaign that helped her hone skills that would carry her to the House of Representatives in Washington in 1916. There she made her mark working on social issues, and was one of only a few members of Congress to vote against our country’s entrance to both World War I and World War II.
Jeanette was born near Missoula Montana, June 11, 1880. Her mother was a seamstress and teacher, her father a rancher. She attended the University of Montana, graduated in 1902 and worked as a teacher and a social worker. She moved to the State of Washington to work on the woman suffrage movement, and when Washington women achieved full suffrage in 1910 she moved back to Montana to work for the movement there.
When women achieved full suffrage in Montana in 1914, only ten other states offered women that benefit. While many states offered some form of suffrage, it was usually limited to allowing women to vote in school board elections and for other local issues. While in Congress Jeanette Rankin used her position to lobby for the amendment to the Constitution that would extend full suffrage to all women, using President Wilson’s own words against him. “How shall we explain…the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” She lost a run for the Senate in 1918, and was reelected to the House of Representatives in 1940.
Jeanette Rankin again voted against war in 1941, the only member of the House of Representative to do so, a lonely move that brought her much criticism. “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said. She continued to work for peace until her death in 1973 at the age of 90.
As the women of Montana celebrate one hundred years of full suffrage this year it is altogether fitting that Jeanette Rankin be honored for her role in that important fight, as well as in other battles for peace and equality. While some of her moves were controversial, she would never compromise her own personal values and beliefs.
Happy Birthday, Jeanette Rankin!