Jeannette Rankin Becomes the First Woman Elected to Congress in 1916

Jeannette Ranking, the first woman elected to Congress
Jeannette Rankin, legislative secretary of the National Council for Prevention of War, leafs through papers as she testifies before the House Naval Affairs Committee, Washington, DC. (February 1938). (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Suffragist and social reformer Jeannette Rankin became the first female member of the U.S. Congress in 1916. Elected as a representative from the state of Montana, Rankin served two non-consecutive terms, from 1917 to 1919 and 1941 to 1943. A committed pacifist, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II.

An Independent Young Woman

Jeannette Rankin was born in Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880 to rancher John Rankin and his schoolteacher wife Olive.

The eldest of seven children, Rankin developed a no-nonsense, take-charge attitude from an early age.

Rankin became a highly-educated woman, graduating from Montana State University in 1902 with a degree in biology. In 1908, she enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy (later named Columbia University School of Social Work), where she worked with impoverished families. Rankin soon developed a strong sense of social justice.

After working briefly as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, Rankin became frustrated. She could not bring about change to improve people's lives as quickly as she had hoped. In 1910, Rankin enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she honed her public speaking skills and became heavily involved in the women's suffrage movement.

In November 1910, Washington state granted women the right to vote. Rankin learned that her work had indeed made a difference in people's lives.

Committed to Suffrage

Rankin returned to Montana in February 1911 to speak to the Montana state legislature. The goal of her speech—the first ever given by a woman before that body—was to persuade the legislators to allow a general election on women's suffrage in Montana.

Newspapers reported that her speech was brilliant, and Rankin did gain some support for her cause, but the bill failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed.

Rankin continued to advocate for the suffrage movement, traveling to several states to work for both local and national suffragist organizations. She returned to Montana in 1914, where women were finally granted the vote in November of that year.

After a year-long trip to New Zealand, Rankin went back to Montana in 1916 and contemplated her next step. Determined to bring about reform for all of the social issues so important to her, Rankin ultimately decided to run for Congress.

Friends tried to dissuade her, fearing that she would certainly lose and, in the process, harm the suffrage movement. But Rankin could not be convinced she was making a mistake.

Campaign for Congress

Rankin began her campaign with the backing of her family. Her sisters, all college-educated, left their jobs and families to campaign for her. Rankin's brother Wellington, a prominent attorney, became her campaign manager and chief donor.

Running as a Republican, Rankin faced seven other Republicans in the primary. In part because Montana voters were already familiar with Jeannette Rankin from her years as a suffragist, she easily earned the most votes in the primary. Rankin then ran in the general election for an at-large position in November 1916.

Rankin campaigned vigorously, running on a platform of women's rights, child welfare, tariff revision, and national and state prohibition. On November 6, 1916, voting for the first time in her life, Rankin had the unique experience of voting for herself.

Initially, as the results were tallied, it appeared that Rankin had been defeated. Voters in the cities strongly favored her opponent, but the rural votes took longer to be counted. After three anxious days, Rankin learned that she had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was 36 years old.

As the first woman elected to Congress, Rankin made headlines around the world.

An Anti-War Stance

Rankin's main priorities as a member of Congress were national women's suffrage and social welfare reform. Yet, on her very first day in Congress—April 2, 1917—Rankin faced a daunting responsibility.

President Woodrow Wilson, who had previously held a position of neutrality toward the war in Europe, asked Congress to declare war upon Germany. German leaders had warned that American ships crossing to Europe would be attacked; in fact, the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats had killed more than 1000 people, including 114 Americans.

Although she was opposed to the war in Europe, Rankin was uncertain how she would vote. The suffragist community pressured Rankin from both sides. Pacifist members wanted her to vote against it, while others believed women's suffrage was her first priority. An unpopular vote of "no" would be harmful to the suffragist movement, they believed, because Rankin represented their cause.

Congress debated the issue for three days. Rankin listened to the debate before making up her mind.

When the vote was finally called, Rankin voted against American involvement in World War I, claiming that she supported her country, but could not support the war. Although 49 other members had also voted against the war, Rankin was the most harshly criticized. She received a few letters of support, but most were critical.

Representative Rankin

Rankin settled in to her new position, hiring an all-female staff. She helped to create the Committee on Woman Suffrage, a special committee that worked on a constitutional amendment to grant women the vote. The resolution made it through the House, but was rejected by the Senate. (The 19th Amendment, which granted all women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920.)

Rankin was also assigned to the Committee on Public Lands, which oversaw western states, including her home state of Montana. Following a mining disaster in Butte, Montana in 1917, Rankin tried to stand up for striking miners against the powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company. But the company refused to even meet with her, and her efforts failed.

Prior to the 1918 election, Rankin's at-large position was re-districted. Because the new district was primarily Democratic, Rankin felt certain she would be defeated. Instead of running for the House, Rankin decided to run for the Senate as a third-party candidate. She was defeated.

A Long-Delayed Second Term

After her term in the House, Rankin remained committed to social causes, including the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She was also a lobbyist for the National Council for the prevention of War from 1929 to 1939.

Jeannette Rankin was drawn back into politics in 1939 by the near certainty of another war in Europe. At the age of 60, she began another campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Rankin won the election in 1940, defeating her male opponent.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt called for Congress to declare war on Japan. Just as she had in 1917, Rankin voted against going to war. This time, however, hers was the lone dissenting voice. She announced her vote amid the sound of her colleagues' boos and hisses.

Rankin knew that her unpopular decision would spell the end of her political career.

She left the House in 1943.

Even later in life, Rankin stayed true to her pacifist views. She participated in protests against the Vietnam War well into her eighties. Jeannette Rankin died on May 18, 1973, at the age of 92.