Jeannette Rankin: a snapshot biography

“In 1916 the miners, cowboys, and housewives of Montana elected a woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the United States Congress. This unprecedented action astounded the country because in most states a woman could not even vote. The capital almost expected a little country girl to come riding into Washington astride a buck-skin pony, Winchester at her side, shouting an Indian war whoop.” – Norma Smith, a Jeannette Rankin biographer

Biography

“I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” Jeannette Rankin said during the House of Representatives declaration of war vote to enter World War I. That vote was the first ever placed by a woman in the U.S. Congress. 

Black and white photograph of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office in the United States, seated in an ornate wooden chair. She is dressed in a light-colored blouse with a dark, draped shawl over her shoulders, and she is looking directly at the camera with a calm and composed expression. The background features a dark, patterned wallpaper and framed pictures.
Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette’s peaceful stance was a vote, but more so, it was a way of life. Born in Montana in 1880, she grew up in the frontier, where she fell in love with nature and adopted the ethos of living with determination and cooperation. Life there, however, also introduced Jeannette to much violence from the vicious fighting with Native American tribes. That, in part, led to her pacifist nature; striving to resolve disputes peacefully became a guiding philosophy. 

From a young age, Jeannette was strong-willed, independent, and ready to argue if she disagreed with an opinion. “If you can take care of Jeannette, I can take care of the other children,” Jeannette’s mother told her husband in their daughter’s early years. At the same time, Jeannette was “sensitive and compassionate,” wanting to help others. An early career aspiration was to become a nurse. 

Vintage portrait photograph of Jeannette Rankin. She is wearing a wide-brimmed hat adorned with a ribbon and a flower, and a light, ruffled blouse. Her expression is gentle with a slight smile, and she is looking slightly to the side. The bottom of the image includes her signature, 'Miss Jeannette Rankin', indicating her identity.
Jeannette Rankin, circa 1916

Jeannette’s trailblazing years began early. In a time when few women attended college, she graduated from the University of Montana and the New York School of Philanthropy. Then, she became a social worker. 

It was during these initial work years that Jeannette’s political career began. She became active in the suffragist movement, speaking to help bring change. “It is beautiful and right that a mother should nurse her child through typhoid fever, but it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which typhoid fever resulted,” Jeannette said in a 1911 address to the Montana State Legislature.

Advocating for change led her to campaign for office. When running in 1916, her platform focused on suffrage, social welfare, and prohibition. These initiatives resonated with voters, and she won. Jeannette said upon winning,

“I am deeply conscious of the responsibility, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to be the first woman to sit in Congress. I will not only represent the women of Montana, but also the women of the country, and I have plenty of work cut out for me.” 

Vintage sepia-toned portrait of Jeannette Rankin. She is wearing a period-appropriate outfit with a fitted jacket and skirt. Her attire is complemented by a high-collared blouse and a hat adorned with ribbons. She is looking off to the side with a thoughtful expression, and her gloved hands are clasped in front of her.
Jeannette Rankin, circa 1917

Jeannette served one term and then ran for a Senate seat after her district was gerrymandered. She lost that election. But her spirit for pacifism and equality remained unchanged. While no longer in office, Jeannette continued working for peace movements, joining organizations and traveling nationwide to advocate for initiatives. 

As world changes began happening in the late 1930s, Jeannette thought she could be more effective in advocating for peace in Congress again. And so she ran for office. “This woman has more courage and packs a harder punch than a regiment of regular line politicians,” said a fellow politician about Jeannette during this time.  

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1940, she once again voted against the U.S. entering a world war. This time, however, she was the only objecting vote. And just as her first time in Congress, Jeannette served one term. 

Years later, John F. Kennedy wrote about Jeannette, “Few members of Congress have ever stood more alone while being true to a higher honor and loyalty.”

Jeannette continued advocating for peace until passing away in 1973. 

Notes

  • If you enjoyed this snapshot biography of Jeannette Rankin, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Your support is much appreciated.
  • This story was updated on January 18th, 2024.

Sources

  • Harris, Ted C. “Jeannette Rankin in Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, 1974, pp. 55–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40579668. Accessed 5 Apr. 2021.
  • Bain News Service, Publisher. Jeannette Rankin. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2014704009/> Wikimedia Commons (restored by Adam Cuerden)
  • National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Margaret Sterling Brooke –  NPG.86.8
  • Alonso, Harriet Hyman. “Jeannette Rankin and the Women’s Peace Union.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 39, no. 2, 1989, pp. 34–49. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4519215. Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.
  • Murphy, Mary. “When Jeannette Said ‘No’: Montana Women’s Response to World War I.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 65, no. 1, 2015, pp. 3–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24420046. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

 

  • Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience. United States, Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.

    • “In 1916 the miners, cowboys, and housewives of Montana elected a woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the United States Congress. This unprecedented action astounded the country because in most states a woman could not even vote. The capital almost expected a little country girl to come riding into Washington astride a buck-skin pony, Winchester at her side, shouting an Indian war whoop.”

    • “If you can take care of Jeannette, I can take care of the other children.”

    • “sensitive and compassionate”