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Suffragist, pacifist, and congresswoman. Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, served two terms in the House of Representatives, in 1917-1919 and in 1941-1942. Born on a ranch near Missoula in Montana Territory, she became a restless, extraordinarily energetic person and a fighter for altruistic, demanding, and sometimes highly unpopular causes.

Rankin graduated from the University of Montana in 1902. After trying elementary schoolteaching and other occupations, she studied social work at the New York School of Philanthropy but found this profession also insufficiently rewarding. In 1910 she entered the University of Washington where she joined the state suffrage organization. For the next four years, she traveled back and forth across the continent, speaking and lobbying for women’s right to vote. She was the moving force behind the organization that secured Montana women the franchise in 1914.

Two years later Rankin was elected to Congress on the Republican ticket. Soon after taking her seat she cast an anguished vote against the declaration of war on Germany, stating, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” During her term she supported the federal woman suffrage amendment, measures to protect women workers, mothers, and children, and efforts to abolish prostitution near army camps. She voted for Prohibition and against the Espionage Act of 1917 and sought to end a strike in a copper field owned by the Anaconda company, the dominant political and economic power in Montana, by having the federal government nationalize the mine.

In 1918 she ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent. Then, while serving as a field secretary for the National Consumers’ League, she campaigned for legislation to promote maternal and child health care and to regulate the hours and wages of women workers. She served as an officer of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom during the early 1920s and, as a lobbyist for the Women’s Peace Union, campaigned to outlaw war. Rankin became a part-time resident of Georgia where she founded the Georgia Peace Society in 1928. The following year she joined the National Council for the Prevention of War as its chief Washington lobbyist and field organizer.

Ten years later, Rankin left the National Council and was again elected to Congress, where she opposed conscription, Lend-Lease, and the repeal of neutrality laws. In December 1941 she cast the only vote against the declaration of war on Japan. After her term ended, she traveled between her homes in Montana and Georgia. Deeply interested in the nonviolent methods of Mohandas K. Gandhi and in the liberation of third world peoples, she made several visits to India. She captured the attention of the public for the last time in 1968 by leading the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, some five thousand feminists, pacifists, radicals, students, and others, to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.

Hannah G. Josephson, Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography (1974).


The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.