“You can’t have freedom for anybody in a society unless you have freedom for everybody… We women should picket everything. This is no time to be polite.”– Jeannette Rankin
Jeannette Rankin’s Story
Jeannette Rankin was born on a ranch outside Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880. She was the oldest of seven surviving children and helped to raise her sisters and brother. In 1902, Rankin graduated from Montana State University with a degree in biology. She taught at a one-room school in Grant Creek, Montana, but quit after one year. Rankin then worked as a seamstress in a department store, but when her father got sick with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, she left her job to care for him.
When her brother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also became sick, Rankin left Montana for the East Coast, to take care of him. She visited Boston and New York, where she was struck by the poor living conditions and exploitation experienced by immigrants. In 1907, Rankin traveled to San Francisco, where she worked with immigrants and children at a settlement house. There, she learned about working conditions in factories, wage legislation, and child labor laws, and was inspired to enter the new field of social work.
In 1908, Rankin entered the country’s first graduate program in social work at the New York School of Philanthropy, now Columbia University’s School of Social Work. While studying in New York, Rankin also worked in night police courts, assisting workers who had been exploited, such as sex workers, to find them support and safer jobs. While living in New York, Rankin was a part of a women’s club of activists and reformers in Greenwich Village called the Heterodoxy Club, made up of suffragists, peace activists, artists and journalists. In this time, Rankin began an intimate and long relationship with the writer and biographer Katherine Anthony.
Rankin returned to Montana in 1910. In her graduate program, she had been taught to evaluate a community’s social health through its jails, and so she investigated the Missoula County Jail. Rankin then worked as a children’s social worker at the Washington Children’s Home Society, in Spokane, Washington, and found foster homes for abandoned children in Seattle. Through this work, she recognized that legislation was needed to create significant change for women and children, and she enrolled at the University of Washington to study political science, economics, and public speaking.
While in Washington, Rankin began working in the women’s suffrage movement, and became a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, crusading for the vote in 16 states. A talented and passionate public speaker, Rankin became known for her speeches on street corners, at fairs, farmers’ meetings, churches and more. Rankin would make over 6,000 speeches around the world about women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, and peace.
After helping Montana women win the vote in 1914, Rankin ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. In 1916, at age 36, she became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. On her very first day in office, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to vote for a declaration of war against Germany, and she broke a 140-year precedent when she rose to make a speech and announce her vote against the war. Though 49 other members of Congress also voted against U.S. entry into World War I, Rankin faced great criticism for her pacifist stance. Many suffragists, including Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, said that Rankin’s vote would be a step backwards for the suffrage movement, making women appear weak.
While in office, Rankin championed legislation to protect children’s rights and women’s rights, including legislation for equal pay for women, and the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, which aimed to reduce the maternal and infant mortality rate, which passed in 1921. Rankin also helped to introduce the legislation that became the 19th Amendment, which secured women the right to vote nationwide in 1920. However, like many other white members of the suffrage movement, Rankin succumbed to the racism of the day, suggesting that African American women could be restricted in their voting rights the same way that African American men were — through racist tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence.
When her term ended in 1919, Rankin ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, but lost her campaign. In 1925, she moved to Georgia and focused on anti-war activism as a founding member of numerous peace organizations. Rankin helped establish the Women’s Peace Party, an American pacifist and feminist organization established to resist U.S. involvement in World War I. She also worked as a lobbyist for peace with the National Council for the Prevention of War, and to develop legislation that would require Congress to secure the approval of a majority of states before declaring war.
In 1939, with the U.S. on the brink of another world war, Rankin returned to Montana and ran for Congress again. While in office for her second congressional term from 1941 to 1943, Rankin took a firm stance that the country’s enemies were not foreign countries but the domestic issues of poverty, unemployment, and disease. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War II, making her the only person to vote against U.S. participation in both world wars.
Rankin continued to be a leader in the peace movement after retiring from politics, and in 1968, at the age of 87, led 5,000 women in the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” at a Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C. She died on May 18, 1973, at the age of 92. Rankin remains the only woman to date elected to the U.S. Congress from the state of Montana.
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.
Featured in the Film
Nancy C. Unger
Nancy C. Unger is Professor of History at Santa Clara University, specializing in women’s history, LGBTQ history, and the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. She is president-elect of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and is the author of two award-winning biographies about Progressive Era leadership: Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer. Her book Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History was a California Book Award finalist. Unger co-edited A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and served as book review editor for the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Outlets featuring her work include C-SPAN, National Public Radio, Time.com, CNN.com, and The Washington Post.
Representative Deb Haaland
U.S. Representative Deb Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe. After running for New Mexico Lieutenant Governor in 2014, Haaland became the first Native American woman to be elected to lead a State Party. During her time as State Party Chair, she traveled to Standing Rock to stand side-by-side with the community to protect tribal sovereignty and advocate vital natural resources. Since 2016, Haaland has served as an Honorary Commander of Kirtland Air Force Base which gives her a better understanding of its missions and effects on New Mexico’s economy. After a lifetime of organizing communities to stand up for New Mexico families, she was elected as one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress. She serves in leadership roles as the 116th Congress Freshman Class Representative to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, House Democratic Region VI Whip (Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona) and Deputy Whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Jeannette Rankin was born
Rankin helped raise her siblings
Rankin taught at a one-room school
Rankin left Montana for the East Coast
IN HISTORY - 1907
Over one million immigrants immigrated to the U.S.
Rankin visited slums and worked in police night courts
Rankin met women activists in New York
IN HISTORY - 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Rankin became a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association
Rankin cut ties with the National Association for Women’s Suffrage Association
Rankin campaigned for a seat in U.S. Congress
Rankin voted against WWI
Rankin served as a U.S. Representative for Montana
The International Congress of Women for Permanent Peace
IN HISTORY - 1921
The first federally-funded social welfare program passed
Rankin returned to Montana and campaigned for Congress
Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against WWII
Rankin retired from politics
IN HISTORY - 1965
The Voting Rights Act
Rankin toured speaking about electoral reform
Deb Haaland became one of the first two American Indian women elected to the U.S. Congress