The Beginning of the Rankin Foundation

Reita with JRF cofounders Gail Dendy, Heather Kleiner, Margaret Holt, and Sue Bailey

For more than 40 years the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund has been empowering women through education. Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund (JRF) honors the legacy of  an American woman of incredible spirit and determination Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress in 1916. Jeannette was a proponent of women's rights and devoted her life to help women and children and stand up for social justice. When Jeannette died in 1973 at the age of 92, she bequeathed part of her Georgia estate to help mature, unemployed women workers, providing the seed money to create the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, a nonprofit scholarship fund.

Jeannette’s personal assistant, Reita Rivers, and dear friends Sue Bailey, Gail Dendy, Margaret Holt, and Heather Kleiner, established the foundation in 1976 with the $16,000 from her Watkinsville, Georgia estate. To honor Jeannette’s request to help mature, low-income women, the foundation was created to award scholarships to women 35 or older go back to school to earn a bachelors or technical degree. Scholarships help pay for college tuition but can also be used for other living expenses such as childcare, rent, transportation etc. In 2008, the foundation decided to change its name to Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund to better reflect the organizations mission.

The first scholarship was awarded in 1978 in the amount of $500. Since then we have awarded $3 million in scholarships, providing financial aid to more than 1,000 low-income women from all cultures and backgrounds across the U.S. to help them conquer poverty and achieve their dreams of a better life.

A college education can mean the difference between making a living and making a life. The women who receive these scholarships have gone on to do amazing work and 47% of the women were the first in their family to attend college. JRF continues to empower women of all backgrounds from across the nation to better themselves and our world. The foundation continues to advocate for social justice and carries on the legacy of Jeannette Rankin.

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin at home in Watkinsville, GA.

A bequest from Jeannette Rankin provided the first funds for Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund. Jeannette was famously the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. While growing up in Montana, Jeannette worked as a school teacher and social worker, these occupations convinced her that women's suffrage was critical. She was at the core of the suffrage movements in both Montana and Washington state. In 1916 Jeannette ran for one of Montana's House seats, proving victorious in a very close race.

While in Congress, Jeannette advocated for women's suffrage, social welfare, and pacifism. In 1917 she called for the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage, which she was appointed the head of, and advanced legislation to give women the vote. As the Great War (World War I) became a more visible issue, Jeannette refused to support U.S. participation in along with 49 other representatives.
Jeannette took a step away from politics for a time, returning to social work and lobbying, and establishing a residence in Athens, Georgia. In 1939 she decided to join the Montanan congressional race once again and campaigned on the platform of pacifism and anti-war rhetoric. She won the election and returned to Congress. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Jeannette famously cast the only vote in the House against U.S. involvement in World War II. During voting, Jeannette stated, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” That evening she was chased by reporters on the way home, having to lock herself in a telephone booth until police were able to escort her out.
Following the vote, Jeannette decided not to run for Congress again and instead sought to discover more about the world. She traveled all over the globe, notably spending time with Mohandas K. Gandhi to learn about non-violent protest and peaceful demonstrations. Jeannette maintained her pacifist beliefs and spoke out against the war at every opportunity. She spent a lot of her later life in Georgia and continued to have a fighting spirit until she passed away in California on May 18, 1973.