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Unsung Heroes: Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin spent her entire career fighting for social reform, women's rights and peace. She was the first woman elected to Congress.

When Jeannette Rankin joined the 65th U.S. Congress, she was the only female in the House of Representatives. There are 21 female senators and 83 female representatives in the 115th Congress, which convened Jan. 3, 2017.

National Archives and Records Administration

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Published March 20, 2015

Throughout March, in honor of Women’s History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the women’s suffrage movement. You can find more of those well-known and not-so-well-known stories in our EDCollection “Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less,” endorsed by NCSS. To access these resources, you must be signed into NewseumED; registration is free. 

Jeannette Rankin

When Jeannette Rankin joined the 65th U.S. Congress, she was the only female member of the House of Representatives. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Jeannette Rankin spent her entire career fighting for social reform, women’s rights and peace. Born in Montana in 1880, Rankin graduated from Montana State University and attended the New York School of Philanthropy; from there she was employed as a social worker in Spokane, Wash., and attended the University of Washington, Seattle.

It was in Seattle that she joined the women’s suffrage movement and dedicated her career to the cause. Rankin joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and worked for suffrage in Washington state. When Washington granted women’s suffrage in 1910, Rankin switched her efforts to her home state of Montana. After Montana gave women the right to vote in 1914, she had her sights set on something bigger: the U.S. House of Representatives. Rankin ran as a progressive Republican in a heavily Democratic state and became the first woman elected to Congress, owing much of her success to her reputation as a suffragist and Montana women voting in their first federal election. However, not all suffragists supported her campaign; some believed it would hurt the suffrage cause. Throughout her campaign, she pledged to support a women’s suffrage amendment, social welfare reforms and keeping the United States out of war in Europe.

On the day she was sworn in, along with the other members of the 65th Congress, President Wilson addressed the lawmakers, asking them to “make the world safe for democracy.” A few days later, Rankin was one of 50 representatives to vote against American participation in the war. After the vote, suffragists distanced themselves from her and she received backlash in her home state. During her two years in Congress, Rankin fought hard for a women’s suffrage amendment. Because of her advocacy, the Committee on Woman Suffrage was created and she was appointed to it. A resolution passed in committee, but it failed in the Senate. Rankin also faced redistricting and a massive strike in Butte, Mont., after a mining disaster. With the prospect of campaigning in a new, heavily Democratic district, Rankin made the decision to run for Senate instead of the House. Unfortunately, she came in second in the Republican primary, officially ending her bid. After her short stay in Congress, Rankin continued to fight for social reform and woman suffrage.

As another world war threatened, Rankin decided to run for the U.S. House again in 1940. This time, she was one of five women successfully elected to Congress. In December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the House voted on a declaration of war. The vote was 388-1 in favor of war; Rankin was the only one to vote against. Rankin did not run for Congress again and continued to fight for peace. During the Vietnam War, she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade through Washington, D.C., protesting the war. Rankin died in 1973, but was considering another run for Congress, this time to fight against the Vietnam War.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. When Jeannette Rankin ran for her seat in Congress, some suffragists believed a woman in Congress would hurt their cause. Why?
  2. In 1941, after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, Rankin was the only one to vote against a declaration of war. Her decision to vote this way went against her constituents in Montana. Did Rankin make the right decision to vote with her conscience? Or, should she have voted with the wishes of her constituents? Why?

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