Jeannette Rankin was born on June 11, 1880 outside of Missoula, Montana. Her father was a rancher and businessman, and her mother was a school teacher. She was one of seven children.
Jeannette graduated from the Montana State University in 1902. After graduation, she moved to New York City to study social work at the School of Philanthropy. She briefly worked as a social worker in Seattle, Washington before dedicating her time to the woman suffrage movement. She fought for suffrage in Washington, California, Montana, New York, and Washington, D.C. In 1912, she served as the field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
In 1914, Jeannette’s home state of Montana granted statewide suffrage to women. Jeannette saw this as an opportunity. Perhaps women voters could use their influence to elect a woman candidate. With financial support from her family, Jeannette ran for a Montana seat in the United States House of Representatives. She ran a nonpartisan campaign that promoted national woman suffrage, social welfare, and pacifism. On August 29, 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She said “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
On April 2, 1917, Jeannette was sworn in as a new member of Congress. That evening, President Woodrow Wilson called a joint session of the House and Senate to ask for support in entering the ongoing world war.
Jeannette strongly believed that war was wrong and that no problem could be solved by fighting. But she also knew that her position as the first female representative carried great responsibility. For most of the Nineteenth century, the suffrage movement had been tied to the peace movement. Suffragists argued that women voters, the country’s mothers and caretakers, would usher in an era of peace and justice. With the growing threat of world war, however, the suffrage movement became divided on this issue. Many suffragists now supported the war and begged Jeannette to do the same. They worried that opposing the war would make women look weak and hurt both the suffrage cause and the chances of future women candidates.
Jeannette spent days weighing her options. During the debates on the House floor, she remained silent. But when it was her turn to vote, she broke protocol and issued a statement: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.” She was one of only fifty members (out of 423) of the House to vote against the United States entering World War I. Many suffragists distanced themselves from Jeannette and condemned her actions. NAWSA even released a statement saying that she did not speak for its members.
Despite her unpopular vote, Jeannette remained an important part of the suffrage cause. She sat on the House Committee on Woman Suffrage and opened the House’s first debate about the national suffrage amendment. In addition to suffrage, Jeannette also represented Montanan causes. She defended the rights of miners and laborers, and took an interest in public land use.
In 1918, Jeannette feared that she would lose re-election to a strong Democratic challenger. She ran for Senate instead and lost. Most voters did not want a pacifist senator during a popular war.
For the next twenty years, Jeannette worked as a lobbyist. She met with members of Congress, encouraging them to avoid American involvement in future wars. She worked on behalf of the Women’s International League, the Women’s Peace Union, and the National Council for the Prevention of War. In addition to peace work, she also fought for laws protecting child and adult workers with the National Consumers League.
I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.
In 1940, with America on the brink of another world war, Jeannette ran for the House again. She campaigned with an anti-war platform and won.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Jeannette found herself in a familiar situation. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called on Congress to support a declaration of war. Because the United States had been openly attacked, most Americans supported entering the war. However, Jeannette was still a committed pacifist.
This time, Jeannette wanted to speak during the House debates, but the Speaker of the House did not give her a chance. Many colleagues encouraged her to abstain from the process, given her unpopular view. When it was Jeannette’s turn to vote, she once again issued a statement: “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Boos and jeers were heard throughout the room. Jeannette’s vote was so controversial that she had to hide until guards could safely escort her back to her office. She was the only member of Congress to vote against entering World War II.
Jeannette knew that her anti-war stance would likely end her political career, but she refused to sacrifice her integrity. She reminded critics that she ran on an anti-war platform and fulfilled her promise. Her colleagues and constituents shunned her, and she did little during the rest of her term. She did not run for re-election in 1942 and stayed in Montana until her mother’s death in 1947.
By the 1950s, Jeannette had returned to peace activism. She traveled around the world speaking, volunteering, and helping to organize other pacifists. She believed the world could achieve peace if countries were willing to shrink their militaries and move toward disarmament.
The Vietnam War brought new meaning to her work. Jeannette argued that there was little difference between Vietnam and the two world wars she had opposed in Congress. In her opinion, young soldiers were dying for no good reason. In January 1968, Jeannette led 5,000 women in a march on Washington, D.C., to protest the war. They called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
The New York Times interviewed Jeannette when she was 91. She praised the new wave of feminist activism and discussed the issues that troubled her. She talked about her ongoing peace work, as well as her concern over the lack of diversity in elected officials. When the reporter asked if she would go back in time and change anything in her life, Jeannette replied that she would do it the same, “but this time I’d be nastier.”
Jeannette Rankin died on May 18, 1973. At the time of her death she was considering a third run for Congress in opposition to the Vietnam War.