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Thursday, May 2, 2013

            Jeannette Rankin was an amazing woman who accomplished extraordinary things in her lifetime. Not only was she the first woman in congress, she was a suffragist and one of the few elected to congress. During her time in office she was the only one to vote against both World Wars. She knew she had a huge obligation to uphold to the women of her country and her country.  She was the first woman in congress, though she knew she would not be the last.
            Rankin was born in Missoula, Montana in 1880 to a rancher and school teacher. She graduated from University of Montana in 1902, and then went to Colombia University School of Social Work in New York. She moved to Washington where she was a social worker before attending the University of Washington. It was in Washington where she joined the women’s movement and became a lobbyist for the National American Women Suffrage Association. In 1914 both her organizational and speaking skills aided in Montana women gaining the right to vote.
            In 1916, Rankin decided to run for the House of Representatives. She had some significant factors that played to her advantage. First, she had a good reputation as a suffragist and her brother was politically connected and financed her whole campaign. Also, the novelty of a woman running for congress helped her secure a GOP nomination for an At-Large seat to represent Montana. She ran as a progressive and her platform focused on the creation of a congressional women suffrage amendment and work on social welfare issues. She came in second, securing her seat for Montana. As the first woman in congress, Rankin was on the frontlines of the national women’s suffrage fight. In the fall of 1917, she aided in the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage, and was appointed to it. In January 1918 the special committee reported out a constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage. Rankin was the first to open a House Floor debate on a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage.  She opened it by saying, “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen?” she asked. “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” The resolution narrowly passed the House, but died in the Senate. 
            Prior to the 1918 election, the Montana state legislature passed legislation replacing the state’s two At-Large seats with two separate districts. This put Rankin in a tough position because she would have to run against a Democratic incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. She was not re-elected to congress. During her time away from congress Rankin became the leading lobbyist and speaker for the National Council for the Prevention of War. The coming of the Second World War brought Rankin back to run for congress, in 1940. Rankin was re-elected to the house for a second term with 54 percent of the votes. After leaving congress in 1943 she continued on with her activist work to stop war. Her favorite place to travel was India because of her fascination with Mohandas K. Gandhi and his nonviolent protest tactics. She passed away on May 18, 1973 in Carmel, California. At the time leading up to her death she was thinking about running for congress again to protest the Vietnam War. She was a woman with extraordinary influence and a drive that paved the path for women to enter into the political arena.

 By Kirsten Foster

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