Rankin: the First Woman Elected to National Office

On this day in 1916 Jeannette Pickering Rankin (1880-1973) of Montana is elected the first woman to the US House of Representatives and the first woman to hold national office in the United States. She won the seat in the House as a progressive Republican in 1916, and again in 1940.

Born and raised on a ranch near Missoula, Montana, Rankin was the daughter of progressive parents who encouraged her to think beyond the narrow sphere of opportunities generally permitted to women of the early 20th century. After graduating from the University of Montana and the New York School of Philanthropy, Rankin worked briefly as a social worker before becoming active in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1914, her efforts brought her back to Montana, where she believed pioneer conditions had created greater respect for women’s work and abilities, with Montana granting women the right to vote that very year.

At the time of her election, only 11 states had come to permit such an “outrageous” practice: Wyoming in 1890; Colorado in 1893; Utah in 1896; Idaho in 1896; Washington in 1910; California in 1911; Arizona in 1912, Kansas and Oregon in 1912; Montana and Nevada in 1914. Universal women’s suffrage did not arrive until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

And for the irony, each of Rankin’s Congressional terms coincided with initiation of US military intervention in each of the two world wars. A lifelong pacifist and a supporter of non-interventionism, she was one of 50 House members (from a total of 56 in both chambers) who opposed the war declaration of 1917, and the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She is to date the only woman elected to Congress from Montana.

And in the words of the late Hon. Richard D. Kuhn, school is out.

 

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