Tag Archives: women’s history month

Jeannette Rankin

Women’s history month: what we can learn from the first woman elected to Congress

Jeanette Rankin PicMonkey CollageWant 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?


Women’s History Month: 100 years since the march for Women’s Suffrage – women’s progress, civil rights, and making a difference by bringing joy to the world

Bella Abzug, speaking the truth, as always

Bella Abzug, speaking the truth, as always

100 years ago today, on March 3, 1913, thousands of women staged a march on Washington, DC to demand the right to vote. According to Wikipedia, the march was organized by Alice Paul, a leading suffragist, Alice Paul. The march took place on the day prior to the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson “in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded”, as the official program stated. The 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified by the states in 1920.

This is at the front of my mind as the U.S. Supreme Court is in the midst of debating the constitutionality of parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Frankly, the idea that the right to vote for any American might be at risk frightens me.

The fact that both my mother (born in 1913) and my father (1910) were born before women had the right to vote simply blows my mind. It explains a lot about their attitudes as I grew up about what I could accomplish in life. From their perspective, I could be a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher, and all that would be over once I got married – got my M.R.S. degree, as they liked to put it – and had children. Thank goodness for the rise of the feminist movement and my own intellectual drive, which led me to complete my undergraduate degree in economics (University of Michigan, magna cum laude) and a graduate degree in public affairs (Princeton University).

The experience that had the greatest impact on my academic and career path happened in the summer of 1974, when I was lucky enough to serve as an intern to Representative Bella Abzug. Bella’s personality was as outsized as the hats she was known for wearing, and she was open about why she wore them: “I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.”

It was the summer of the Watergate hearings, and I had an up close and personal view of the extraordinary happenings on Capitol Hill. I saw how Bella, sometimes by sheer force of her personality and sometimes by working in collaboration with other legislators, was able to get things done for her constituents. Because of that experience, I decided that I wanted to make the world a better place, and focused on developing skills that could be put to use in creating public policy. I worked for over 20 years as an economist and consultant in the public and private sectors, working on projects ranging from reforming the court system in Massachusetts to making it safer and more efficient for trucks to travel across the nation.

Time goes by, things change, paths are taken or not taken, and everything we do leads us exactly to the place we are today. According to career consultant Emily Bennington, “This is such an incredible, unprecedented time to be a woman in business.” And that is what I am working on at this stage in my life: being a woman in business, making a difference, doing what I love.

Today, my goal is to make a difference by creating more joy in the world through my work. I create joy when I make a collage that brings joy to me as I make it, joy to the gift giver when they see the finished product and the joy to the lucky gift recipient. I use my writing skills, my analytical skills, and my interviewing skills in new ways to build my business. And I actually am following in the footsteps of my entrepreneur father, a pharmacist who owned a drugstore (where my mother also worked, but that’s another story).

I am breaking new ground in a way that I believe Bella would appreciate. I do carry a lipstick, and speak softly most of the time, but I also am not afraid to speak up with passion as I spread the message about my work (and about social justice and causes to which I am deeply committed, such as reducing gun violence and ensuring equal marriage rights).

100 years since the march for women’s sufferage. Can we rest on what has been achieved?  As Alice Paul said, “when you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.” I don’t think we’re there yet, so we must keep plowing ahead. I know that my mother, who would have turned 100 years old on March 8 this year, would agree.