This year marks the 100th anniversary of Jeannette Rankin becoming the first woman to hold a seat in Congress. On April 2, 1917, Jeanette took her oath as a U.S. Representative. Not only was Jeannette the first woman to hold a seat in Congress but, she was elected for this position four years before women nationally had the right to vote. Montana was one of t
he first states that allowed women to vote. “We’re half the people; we should be half the Congress.” said Jeannette. She used her power to help women gain equality and continue her pursuit for social justice. She even helped draft the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote. This created one of Jeannette’s most famous quotes,
“I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give
women the right to vote.”
It wasn’t easy being the first woman to run for Congress. Jeannette was often criticized and had media commenting on her physical appearance rather than her ability to lead. According to a recent article, before Jeannette’s first election, her team sent information to The New York Times about Jeanette. They in turn ran a mocking article which used this information to encourage Montanans to vote for Rankin because “if she is elected to Congress she will improve that body aesthetically, for she is said to be ‘tall, with a wealth of red hair.’” Jeannette didn’t let this affect her and persisted through all the negative press that surrounded her.
After Jeannette’s first term in Congress she went on to continue to fight for social justice and later served a second term starting in 1941. During both of her terms she voted against the United States entering war. In one of Jeannette’s most elegant quotes she said, “There can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.” This made her the only person in Congress to vote against entering both world wars. “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” said Jeannette in 1941 during her congressional speech. After her time in office she continued to fight for equality and peace.
Jeannette passed away in 1973 at the age of 92 but, her legacy continues to live on. After her passing, Jeannette left part of her Georgia estate to help mature unemployed women. Jeannette’s personal assistant, Reita Rivers, along with friends Sue Bailey, Gail Dendy, Margaret Holt, and Heather Kleiner, used that money to establish the Jeannette Rankin Foundation to help adult women who face difficulties returning to school. Later we changed the name to Jeannette Women’s Scholarship Fund to better reflect our mission.
Since Jeannette’s monumental first day as the first women U.S. Representative, more than 300 women have held a seat in Congress. Although women continue to endure the negative media attention that Jeannette faced, we persist in showing America why women deserve to have a voice. As Jeanette once said, “Men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn’t make sense not to use both.” Every day we celebrate Jeannette and her historical legacy of fighting for women’s equality and social justice. We have come a long way since 1917 but, we still have a long way to go.
To read more about Jeannette’s life check out this articles: