Biography of Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress

Black and white head shot of Jeannette Rankin taken in 1917.

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

Fast Facts: Jeannette Rankin

  • Full Name: Jeannette Pickering Rankin
  • Known For: Suffragist, pacifist, peace activist, and reformer
  • Born: June 11, 1880 in Missoula County, Montana
  • Parents: Olive Pickering Rankin and John Rankin
  • Died: May 18, 1973 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
  • Education: Montana State University (now University of Montana), New York School of Philanthropy (now Columbia University School of Social Work), University of Washington
  • Key Accomplishments: First woman elected to Congress. She represented the state of Montana 1917–1919 and 1941–1943
  • Organizational Affiliations: NAWSA, WILPF, National Consumers League, Georgia Peace Society, Jeanette Rankin Brigade
  • Famous Quote: "If I had my life to live over, I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier."

Early Life

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, was a former school teacher. She spent her first years on the ranch, then moved with the family to Missoula. She was the oldest of 11 children, seven of whom survived childhood.

Education and Social Work

Rankin attended Montana State University at Missoula and graduated in 1902 with a degree in biology. She worked as a school teacher 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 to be paid out over her lifetime.

On a long trip to Boston in 1904 to visit her brother at Harvard, 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 (which later became 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 President Woodrow Wilson.

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

Working for Peace and Election to Congress

As the war in Europe loomed, Rankin turned her attention to work for peace. In 1916, she ran for one of the two seats in Congress from Montana as a Republican. Her brother served as her campaign manager and helped finance the campaign. Jeannette Rankin won, though the papers first reported that she lost the election. Thus, Jeannette Rankin 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. She was also an activist against child labor and wrote 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, saying Rankin was opening the suffrage cause to criticism and it was impractical and sentimental.

Rankin did vote later in her term for several pro-war measures, as well as working for 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. It became the 19th Amendment after it was ratified.

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 working for the National Consumers' League. At the same time, she worked 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, for labor reforms, and for an end to child labor. In addition, she worked to pass 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. At the time, there were two women 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." 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. She headed up the group calling itself the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. She was active in the antiwar movement and often invited to speak or be honored by the young antiwar activists and feminists.

Jeannette Rankin died in 1973 in California.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).