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Jeannette Rankin: The First Woman Member of U.S. Congress

Premiere: 8/12/2020 | 00:12:38 |

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) made history as the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in World War I and World War II. A determined suffragist, she helped women in her home state of Montana win the vote and introduced what later became the 19th Amendment to secure suffrage for women nationwide.

About the Episode

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was born in Missoula, Montana and briefly worked as a social worker in New York and Washington state before joining the women’s suffrage movement and becoming a prominent lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. A talented and passionate public speaker, Rankin made over 6,000 speeches around the world in her lifetime, about women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, and peace. After helping Montana women win the vote in 1914, Rankin ran for office in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican in 1916. At age thirty-six, she became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, where she championed legislation to protect children’s rights and women’s rights, including introducing what later became the 19th Amendment, which secured women the right to vote nationwide in 1920. She helped establish the Women’s Peace Party, an American pacifist and feminist organization established to resist U.S. involvement in World War I. She served two non-consecutive congressional terms (1917 to 1919 and 1941 to 1943) and was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II. She remains the only woman to date elected to the U.S. Congress from the state of Montana.

Interviewees: Nancy C. Unger, Professor of History at Santa Clara University; Congresswoman Deb Haaland, U.S. Representative of New Mexico and one of the first two American Indian women elected to Congress.

Editor’s note: The number of federally recognized Tribes has increased from 573 to 574 since the recording of Representative Deb Haaland’s interview in October 2019.


Jeannette Rankin is the first woman to serve in the United States Congress.

She is instrumental in bringing women the vote, and is now strongly associated with being anti-war and a pacifist.

1911, Helena, Montana.

Jeannette Rankin made a passionate speech to the all-male state legislature, lobbying for women's right to vote.

As the suffrage movement is really heating up, Jeannette Rankin is coming in just at the right time.

Her great strength was as a speaker and apparently she was just mesmerizing.

'Women were given equal suffrage in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington... geographically, Montana is next, for it is nearly surrounded with states in which women vote.'. Jeannette Rankin was born on a ranch outside Missoula, Montana in 1880.

She comes from a very well-to-do family.

She is expected to devote much of her time to helping raise her sisters and brother.

But her parents also promoted her education. In 1902, Rankin graduated from Montana State University with a degree in biology.

The expectation wasn't that she was going to become a biologist, but that a woman of a certain class should have a good education, because this will allow her to be a better wife and mother. But she's very unusual in that she doesn't feel compelled to be married, to have children, which was what women were told was the only goal in life.

She is certainly close and has intimate relations with other women like herself, but there's no indication that she's in a passionate relationship with another woman.

She seems to me someone who really values her independence and her privacy.

After working briefly as a teacher and a seamstress, Rankin moved to New York in 1908, to train at the country's first graduate program in social work.

It's just a few blocks from the Lower East Side.

So she is seeing firsthand the tenements, the conditions of poverty, this enormous divide in American cities between the haves and the have nots.

And she's really struck by this.

She starts thinking that women need to be involved in politics.

'I saw that if we were to have decent laws for children, sanitary jails, safe food supplies, women would have to vote.'. Rankin became a field secretary for the National American Women's Suffrage Association, crusading for the vote in 16 States.

She is traveling the country, buttonholing members of Congress.

She's going to conventions, ladies' organizations, standing on street corners. And she's one of their best speakers.

'Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give to the nation?

It is time for our old political doctrines to give way to new visions.'. Rankin's oratory paid off, and in 1914, women in her home state of Montana won the right to vote and run for office. She was inspired to campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The fact that women have the vote in Montana really works to her advantage because she's promoting the kinds of things that most women support.

But first and foremost, she wants the vote for women across the nation.

But she faced stiff resistance from men and women opposed to women's vote.

Many women believe that it would undermine their authority in the home, in society.

There are a million different cartoons of husband wearing an apron, holding a crying baby, while the wife is smoking a cigar.

It will make men effeminate, women masculine. It's unnatural, it's wrong.

'Nothing else will go so far toward overcoming the prejudice against women in office, and nothing would be a greater aid to the feminist movement than to have the higher offices led by women.'. Rankin won her campaign by 10,000 votes, and on April 2nd, 1917, at age 36, was sworn in as the first woman elected to national office in the United States.

'I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I will not be the last.'. It's not easy to stand up for your values and be strong and not waver.

So I have to respect immensely Jeannette Rankin. I think she was exemplary and an inspiration.

My name is Deb Haaland, and I am proud to represent the first district of New Mexico.

I'm a member of the Laguna Pueblo, and it's a very traditional community.

Women generally, they're not the politicians.

But I'm very proud to be in this historic class with a number of women who were elected in 2018.

And I want to make sure that we keep it that way. You know, it's a stark reality to see that we're not half the population here in Congress. When we're all on the floor together, you can see that the men outnumber the women.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be the one woman working with 434 men, many of whom are not happy to see a woman among their ranks.

She's barely taken her hat off and she has to vote on whether or not the United States should enter into World War I.

On Rankin's very first day in office, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to vote for a declaration of war against Germany.

And when it's time to vote, she breaks a precedent of 140 years.

You're just supposed to say 'yay' or 'nay.' But instead she makes a speech.

'I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote 'no.''. Even though 49 male members of Congress also voted no, Rankin's vote was especially controversial.

She really sets off a whole firestorm. It's just pandemonium.

And for many, particularly in the suffrage movement, there is just so much anger and outrage. 'You've ruined it for us.

You are giving the message that women are sentimental, that they can't be trusted with important decisions.'. 'The first vote of the first woman member of Congress was a vote against war.

You can no more win a war, than you can win an earthquake.'. Despite the backlash, Rankin pursued an agenda of reform, introducing a number of bills to increase the rights of women and children.

But her biggest goal remained securing the vote nationally.

'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 created a congressional committee on women's suffrage, initiating the legislation that later became the 19th Amendment. But like many white women of her day, Rankin's record was not as stellar around issues of race.

The very racist Mississippi senator John Sharp Williams tells her 'if we pass your amendment, then Negro women could vote.' She responds, 'But couldn't you keep them from voting the same way you keep the Negro man from voting?' It's very disappointing for someone who is so concerned about women's rights that she succumbs to the racism of the day.

In New Mexico, tribes gained that right to vote in state elections in 1948.

Indians have wanted to be a part of this system for a long, long time.

We've had many activists fighting for our right to water, our lands.

The issues that are important to me are the environment, climate change, moving renewable energy forward.

We want economic development and we want our children to have a quality public education. We want all our people to have healthcare.

There's 573 tribes across the country.

So I have tribal leaders from all over the country coming to visit me and talking about the issues that are important to them.

I definitely feel that I am here for all of Indian Country, as well as my district.

By the time the 19th Amendment became law in 1920, Rankin's two-year term was over and she had lost her reelection campaign.

In 1925, Rankin moved to Athens, Georgia, and focused on anti-war activism as a founding member of various peace organizations.

'The work of educating the world for peace is a woman's job, because men are afraid of being classed as cowards. At the present time, I can see no more urgent cause than outlawing war.'. In 1941, at age 60, Rankin campaigned to represent Montana in Congress again.

As World War II in Europe is expanding, there's real fear that the United States will once again be sucked into a war.

So this is a good time for her to be reentering politics.

She wants to be at the center of power.

Rankin won. Back in Congress, this time among nine other women, she made history again.

Jeannette Rankin is the only person in Congress to vote against us entry into World War II, which makes her the only person in American history to have voted against U.S.

entry into both wars. This time, she is really vilified.

She is so harassed after her vote that she actually takes refuge in a phone booth, and she has to call the Congressional office and say, 'You have to get security down to get me out.'. Rankin retired from politics in 1943, but remained active in the peace movement.

In 1968, at the age of 87, she led 5,000 women in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade at a Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C.

'You can't have freedom for anybody in a society unless you have freedom for everybody. We women should pick everything. This is no time to be polite.'. Rankin died in 1973, weeks shy of her 93rd birthday. Twelve years later, her statue was installed at the U.S. Capitol.

Montana has not had a woman in the House of Representatives since Jeannette Rankin.

She chose a very difficult path and she met with a lot of vilification and she continued on.

I am intent on leaving the ladder down for young girls who want to achieve a leadership position.

'You don't do the right thing because of the consequences. If you are wise, you do it regardless of the consequences.

I have nothing left but my integrity.'


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