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Jeannette Rankin: One Woman, One Vote

By Winifred Conkling
Black and white portrait of Jeannette Rankin. Library of Congress
Jeannette Rankin. Collections of the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2014704009/)
Only one woman in American history – Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin – ever cast a ballot in support of the 19th Amendment. In 1916, Rankin represented the citizens of Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she wanted American women nationwide to enjoy the benefits of suffrage. “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote,” Rankin said. [1] But Rankin’s contributions go far beyond that single vote.

Rankin was feisty all her life. She was born in the Montana Territory in 1880, before it became a state. Unlike most women of her day, she attended college, studying biology as a member of the first class of students at the University of Montana. She started her career as a teacher but changed her focus after visiting her brother Wellington Rankin in Boston and seeing urban slums for the first time. When she returned to the west, she got a job at a settlement house for poor women and children.

To improve her skills, she went to New York City, where she studied social work at the New York School of Philanthropy (which later became Columbia University’s School of Social Work). In 1909, she moved to Washington State and began work at an orphanage. The work didn’t suit her; she felt she could never do enough to address the needs of the poor by dealing with one case at a time. Recognizing the need for systemic change, she once again returned to school, this time enrolling at the University of Washington to study finance, public speaking, and government.
Three woman standing in a group holding copies of a newspaper LOC
Jeannette Rankin (right) holding The Suffragist newspaper. Collections of the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000300/)
That’s where she discovered suffrage. While at school in Seattle in 1910, Rankin saw an ad in the school newspaper soliciting volunteers to work for women’s suffrage in the state of Washington. During the afternoon she spent putting up suffrage posters around town, and learning more than she had ever known before about suffrage, Rankin thought about the link between suffrage and social reform. If women could vote, it followed that they could support laws to improve the lives of children and families. From then on, Rankin became an outspoken advocate for suffrage. That fall, Washington became the fifth state in the nation to give women the right to vote.

Rankin soon returned to Montana and began to work for suffrage there. Before long, the Equal Franchise Society asked her to address the Montana legislature. Because Rankin was the first woman to address the state legislature, her speech created quite a stir. In honor of her arrival at the State Capitol in Helena, the legislators were banned from smoking and spittoons were removed from the room. Legislators were warned not to swear, and they chipped in to buy Rankin a bouquet of violets to welcome her.

“I was born in Montana,”[2] Rankin said when she began her remarks. This gave her credibility; most people were born out of state and moved to Montana. She addressed the need for the vote in a non-threatening way. “It’s beautiful and right that a woman should nurse her sick children through typhoid fever, but it’s also beautiful and right that she should vote for sanitary measures to prevent that typhoid from spreading,” she said. [3] She argued that suffrage would not disrupt the social order; it would allow women to be better caretakers of children and families.
black and white photo of new women on a balcony. LOC
Jeannette Rankin (right) and Carrie Chapman Catt (left) on the balcony at NAWSA headquarters. Collections of the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2016821745/)
The suffrage bill failed that year. Undeterred, Rankin continued her efforts, traveling thousands of miles across Montana, working with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and becoming one of the leading voices about suffrage in America. Three years later – in 1914 – Montana became the tenth state to grant women the right to vote. After the vote in Montana, Rankin traveled and assessed her next steps. She decided to run for the U.S. Congress. “The primal motive for my seeking a seat in the national Congress is to further the suffrage work and to aid in every possible way the movement for nationwide suffrage, which will not cease until it is won,” she said.[4]

She wasn’t concerned that there had never been a woman in Congress. She believed that women needed a voice in government to speak out against war and in favor of children’s issues. “There are hundreds of men [in Congress] to care for the nation’s tariff and foreign policy and irrigation projects. But there isn’t a single woman to look after the nation’s greatest asset: its children.”[5] Rankin’s brother Wellington offered to help. “I’ll manage your campaign,” he said. “And you’ll be elected.” [6]

In addition to suffrage, Rankin supported an 8-hour work day for women and legal protections for children, especially orphans. When her critics argued that “A woman’s place is in the home,” she responded, “The way to protect the home is to have a say in the government.”[7] In 1916, when she was thirty-six years old, Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

On April 2, 1917, suffragists honored Rankin at a breakfast before her first day on Capitol Hill. The war in Europe had been intensifying, and Rankin’s suffragist friends feared that the country might be drawn into the war. They reminded her that the cause of suffrage would be compromised if she voted against the war because women would be seen as weak and unfit for politics. Rankin listened but made no promises about what she would do.

The same day, President Woodrow Wilson called an emergency session of Congress and asked them to vote to “make the world safe for democracy” by entering the war. No matter what she did, Rankin knew she would disappoint a lot of people. In her campaign, Rankin had promised to do everything she could to keep the country out of war. Although not a Quaker, Rankin had developed her pacifist beliefs in her childhood and thus had held them most of her life. Her brother Wellington urged Rankin to save her political career and “Vote a man’s vote”[8] by standing with the president. After only six days in Congress, Rankin cast her first vote. At three o’clock in the morning, her name was called and she said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote ‘no.’”[9]
Photo of women in a car outside NAWSA headquarters LOC
Jeannette Rankin (standing right) and Carrie Chapman Catt (standing left) riding in a car outside NAWSA headquarters. Collections of the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2016821746/)
The war measure passed without her support or that of fifty other Congressmen. “You know, you are not going to be re-elected,” Wellington said. “I’m not interested in that,” Rankin said. “All I am interested in is what they will say fifty years from now.”[10] Rankin did not regret her decision. “Never for one second could I face the idea that I would send your men to be killed for no other reason than to save my seat in Congress,” she later said.[11]

Rankin tried to make the most of her time in Congress. As promised, she championed the suffrage amendment and pushed President Wilson and Congress to support the measure. On January 10, 1918, Rankin addressed Congress on the suffrage question. “How shall we explain… the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked.[12] The resolution for women’s suffrage passed in the House by 274 to 136. Though it did not pass in the Senate, momentum was building.

As expected, Rankin did not win reelection. The following year, after Rankin left office, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which gave women in all states the right to vote after its ratification in 1920. The suffrage issue had been settled, but Rankin continued her career in public service. After leaving Congress, she moved to a farm in Georgia and worked with the Georgia Peace Society. Almost twenty years after she left Congress, she decided to return to Montana and run for the U.S. House of Representatives again. In 1940 she ran on the promise that she would keep America out of war. She won a second chance to represent her home state.

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor; the following day, 60-year-old Rankin once again voted against entering the war. This time she was the sole vote against entering the fight, making her the only person to have voted against American involvement in World War I and World War II. Again, her political career lasted only a single term, but for Rankin, that was not the point. As she later told a friend, “I have nothing left except my integrity.”[13]
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This article was originally published by the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC) on May 6, 2020 as a part of the WSCC blog, The Suff Buffs. The Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission was created by Congress to commemorate 100 years of the 19th Amendment throughout 2020 and to ensure the untold stories of women’s battle for the ballot continue to inspire Americans for the next 100 years.
Author Biography

Winifred Conkling is the author of Votes for Women! American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot (Algonquin Young Readers, 2018.) She is the award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers.


Footnotes

[1] O’Brien, Mary Barmeyer. Jeannette Rankin: Bright Star in the Big Sky. Helena: Rowan & Littlefield, 1995; p. 37.

[2] O’Brien, p. 78.

[3] Aronson, Peter. Jeannette Rankin: America’s First Congresswoman. New York: Double M. Books, 2019; p. 24.

[4] Aronson, p. 33.

[5] Woelfle, Gretchen. Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek, 2007; p. 43.

[6] Woelfle, p. 42.

[7] Marx, Trish. Jeannette Rankin: First Lady of Congress. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2006.

[8] Josephson, Hannah. Jeannette Rankin: First Lady in Congress. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974; p. 73.

[9] Josephson, p. 142.

[10] Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002; p. 112.

[11] Aronson, p. 45.

[12] O’Brien, p. 124.

[13] Smith, p. 184.


Bibliography

Aronson, Peter. Jeannette Rankin: America’s First Congresswoman. New York: Double M. Books, 2019.

Giles, Kevin S. One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story. St. Petersburg, FL: BookLocker.com, 2016.

Josephson, Hannah. Jeannette Rankin: First Lady in Congress. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974.

Lopach, James, and Luckowski, Jean A. Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2005.

Marx, Trish. Jeannette Rankin: First Lady of Congress. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2006.

O’Brien, Mary Barmeyer. Jeannette Rankin: Bright Star in the Big Sky. Helena: Rowan & Littlefield, 1995.

Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.

Woelfle, Gretchen. Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer. Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek, 2007.

Last updated: December 14, 2020