Want to win a bar bet? Bet on which state elected the first woman to the United States Congress. Answer: Montana. Montana! This particular glass ceiling was broken by Jeanette Rankin, born in 1880, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 and 1940. She took office on March 4, 1917. According to Wikipedia, after her first election she said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last.”
Some highlights of Rankin’s career and influence: In 1902, Rankin graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. After a few false starts in her career, Rankin became an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and a lobbyist for theNational American Woman Suffrage Association. A lifelong pacifist, she was one of fifty members of Congress who voted against entry into World War I in 1917, and the only member of Congress who voted against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. After the vote, she had to hide in a phone booth until she could be rescued by Capitol Police.
Rankin drew parallels between her work on women’s voting and her pacifist position on foreign policy. From Wikipedia: “(Rankin) believed that the corruption and dysfunction of the United States government was a result of a lack of feminine participation. In her words: “The peace problem is a woman’s problem.”
Rankin was rediscovered and embraced in the 1960s and 1970s by new activists for women’s rights, civil rights, and pacifism. Enraged by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, she considered running for Congress again in protest of the war but she died of natural causes on May 18, 1973.
Her legacy endures. After her death, she bequeathed her Watkinsville, Georgia property to help “mature, unemployed women workers.” The Jeannette Rankin Foundation (later named The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund) annually gives educational scholarships to low-income women 35 and older across the United States. Beginning in 1978 by awarding one scholarship in the amount of $500, the Foundation since has awarded over $1.8 million in scholarships to more than 700 women.
Jeannette Rankin lived through many changes in the world. I loved reading about her and how her perspective changed as she grew older – notice that I didn’t say she mellowed, only that she changed. You have maybe heard the poem that starts, “If I had my life to live over, I would eat more ice cream and less beans.” Jeannette had her own spin on this.
What do you think? If you had your life to live over, what would you change?