Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

(1880 – 1973)

DJ Name: Jammin’ Jeannette  

On August 18, 1920, women (read: white women) were finally given the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. And a week later on August 26th, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially certified its passage with his signature. One of those (white) women who could now pull up to the polls was Jeannette Rankin, but her outlook was a bit different: She got to cast one of the deciding votes that would confirm the 19th Amendment’s passage, thus ensuring (white) women all across the country could play a role in democracy. As the first female figure in Congress, she paved the way for future generations of ladies to have a say in which man they preferred to make choices about their bodies. *wink* Shuffle up her hits here:

Smack dab in the middle of Montana, where the deer and the antelope play, Jeannette Rankin was born beneath the blue skies in her family’s home on the range. Not sure what a range is exactly, but it seems fitting to describe Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880, as “the range.” Seldom was heard a discouraging word, and Jeannette, the eldest of six children, busied herself throughout adolescence with farm chores and tasks. Her father, John, worked as a carpenter and rancher while her mother, Olive, was a schoolteacher. Jeannette found she was pretty handy at ranchwork: once, all by herself, she built a wooden sidewalk for a building her father owned so that he could rent it out. It was during her childhood farm laboring days that it dawned on her that women like her worked side by side men tending to the fields, yet they didn’t have the same equal representation in politics. 

Jeannette left her home on the range to attend school at Montana State University (now called the University of Montana) (go grizzlies!) and later moved on down to the big city to attend the New York School of Philanthropy (now called the Columbia University School of Social Work) (go lions!). Two degrees later, she moved to Spokane, Washington, and took a job as a social worker. But two degrees were not enough for Jeannette. She wanted to fill her brain with all that good, good knowledge. So she moved to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington. Here, she filled her brain up with not just knowledge, but also with feminist rebellious teachings. She signed up with Washington’s woman suffrage movement, which successfully secured women the right to vote in the Evergreen state in 1910. Jeannette got extra lit about winning women the right to vote, and she began to speak publicly, organize events and lobby on behalf of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Thanks to her efforts, the Big Sky Country state (Montana) also gave women the right to vote in 1914.

Jeannette was on a roll. Why stop with women voting? Why couldn’t women serve in those chambers of government in which they were now electing people? Jeannette said “whatevs, what have I got to lose?” and embarked on a campaign for Congress. Her brother, Wellington, was politically well-connected (he studied at Harvard and got his law degree there, too, lah-di-dah) and he helped finance her campaign. While some women were worried she’d lose and ultimately hurt the cause, Montanans were stoked about the novelty of a woman on the ballot and the GOP nominated her for one of the two available House seats. She ran on a platform of universal women’s suffrage and pacifism, and she took those values straight to Capitol Hill. It was the first federal election that Montana women could vote in (thanks to Jeannette’s prior achievements), and she came in second place behind Democrat John Evans.

Being the first woman in Congress placed Jeannette in a tricky situation: her job was to represent Montana, but she was also representing women in every state who looked to her to be their voice in a room full of men. The night she was sworn into office, she and the other members of the 65th Congress convened to hear Woodrow Wilson ask for a declaration of war to enter World War I and “make the world safe for democracy.” A committed pacifist, Jeannette said, “that’s no goody, Woody.” OK, she didn’t really say that. Instead, she mulled over what a “no” vote would do for the women’s suffrage movement. Would it look like women were treasonous Americans, uneager to defend their country’s values? Jeannette chose to stick to her guns — er, bad word choice. She voted nay, along with 50 other members, and said, “As a woman, I can’t go to war. And I refuse to send anyone else.” However, we all know how this story ends: 373 members voted yes, thus throwing the U.S. into the fray against Germany and the other central powers.

While holdin’ up her spot as a woman in the House, Jeannette advocated for universal suffrage and fair working conditions, both for laborers and federal workers. In Butte, Montana, a group of miners went on strike over their working conditions. Jeannette hoped for help from President Wilson, but got nothin’. She also met with workers of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and hired a private investigator to monitor their workdays, which were extremely long hours with unreasonable expectations. She shared what she gathered from this investigation with Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, who then had to see it for himself so he conducted his own investigation, and eventually limited the workday to eight hours. 

The big day came in January 1918 when Jeannette took to the mike and delivered a report to Congress on behalf of the Committee of Woman Suffrage, of which she was a founding member, calling for an amendment that would grant women the right to cast a ballot in an election. She hit them where it hurt most: by questioning the hypocrisy of being a nation that went to war for democracy while they so easily withheld democratic rights from their own citizens. She dropped the mike as this resolution passed in the House. However, it was shot down in the Senate (boo!!). A year later, though, after her tenure in the House was up, the Amendment passed thus becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Jeannette asked us to tell you to check in on your voting rights and requirements here: November is just around the corner!)

As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So Jeannette tried to do just that by running for the Senate. She lost the race, but that didn’t stop this go-gettin’ gal from continuing to fight for peace, social welfare, and equality. She attended the Women’s International Conference for Permanent Peace in 1919, and joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Then in 1928, she founded the Georgia Peach Society. Oops…we mean, Georgia PEACE Society after she returned to life on the range aka she purchased a farm in Georgia. 

Despite Jeannette’s efforts to shatter the glass ceiling, the 19th Amendment’s passage did not secure very many women’s right to vote. Keep in mind that many states, such as Montana and Washington, had already legalized women’s right to vote. The amendment did, however, ensure that neither the country nor any state could deny someone the right to vote solely based on his or her sex. Indigenous women, as well as many Asian-American women, were not considered U.S. citizens and therefore the amendment did not extend to them. Poll taxes now kept Black men AND Black women away from the polls. And those same tactics were often used toward Latina women, too. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s and ‘60s that people of all different backgrounds would finally cast a ballot, and even now there are tactics to keep people away from flexin’ their voting rights.

Jeannette returned to the U.S. House of Representatives after winning the 1940 race, while the conversation of war, which was deja vu to her first go round, dominated any and all conversations. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and called for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan for their sudden and deliberate attack. Jeannette stood by her pacifist values and became the only person to vote no, but the declaration of war passed the House with a vote of 388 to 1. She said, “As a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.” And though she was ridiculed for taking a stance for what she believed was right and for sticking to her pacifistic values, she was isolated and her future votes basically didn’t matter anymore. She told her friends, “I have nothing left but my integrity.” And in 1942, her career with the House ended as Montana voted in Democrat Mike Mansfield. 

Ever busy with her glass-ceiling-shattering work schedule, Jeannette never married and there’s little consensus on her sexuality. Her longest-lasting relationship was with her BFF Katharine Anthony, a biographer who wrote about Catherine the Great, Susan B. Anthony and Queen Elizabeth. Jean and Kath for life. She spent the rest of her life splitting time between Georgia and Montana, and she traveled to India to study the pacifist teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1968, at the age of 88, Jeannette was still actively opposing U.S. involvement in war. This time: the Vietnam War. She led the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” from Union Station to the Capitol. This group of about 5,000 people presented House Speaker John McCormack with a peace petition. 

A few years later, Jeannette passed away at age 92 in 1973, leaving her estate to help “mature, unemployed women workers.” Rankin Ranch, spanning 90 acres in Broadwater County, Montana, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. She left in her wake the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, which has financed over $1.8 million of scholarships to more than 700 women to date. And while she had quite the storied career herself, the Rankin fam left behind a strong legacy in Montana. Wellington served as the state’s attorney general, as well as on the state’s supreme court. Her sister, Edna Rankin McKinnon, shared her feminist spirit. She was a birth control activist, and served as president of Chicago’s Planned Parenthood chapter. She was also the first woman to pass the Bar exam in Montana! What the heck! Why didn’t we write about her this week…stay tuned for her tunes. Soon, Historic Shuffle will be a Rankin family stan account. 

But back to Jeannette. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she said in 1916. “But I won’t be the last.” To date, though, Jeannette remains the only woman elected to Congress from Montana. Today, 26 women serve in the U.S. Senate, and another 101 dalmatians women sit in the House of Representatives. Pretty dope. But when you consider that women make up 50 percent of the U.S. population, but they only comprise about 25 percent of each chamber of Congress, then you realize there’s still a ways to go. Plus, only 48 of them are women of color. But just you wait. El futuro es mujer. 

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