No history of American representative government could properly be written without a major reference to Representative Jeannette Rankin. The Montana Republican carries the distinction of being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. That singular event occurred in 1916. A year later, she earned a second distinction by joining 49 of her House colleagues in voting against U.S. entry into World War I. That vote destroyed her prospects for reelection in 1918.
Over the next 20 years, Rankin tirelessly campaigned for world peace. In 1940, riding a tide of isolationism, she won her second term in the House. The December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to isolationism, but Rankin remained true to her anti-war beliefs, becoming the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war against Japan.
What is less well known about Jeannette Rankin is that she is the first woman to organize a major campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate. After her 1917 vote opposing World War I, she knew she stood no chance of winning a seat in a congressional district that the state legislature had recently reshaped with a Democratic majority. Instead, she placed her hopes for continuing her congressional career on being able to run state-wide as a candidate for the Senate. Narrowly defeated in the Republican primary, she launched a third-party campaign for the general election.
Although unsuccessful in her 1918 Senate race, Rankin helped destroy negative public attitudes about women as members of Congress. During her second House term in 1941, she served with six other women members, including Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith. Those members carefully avoided making an issue of their gender. Rankin agreed with a colleague’s famous comment, “I’m no lady. I’m a member of Congress.”
Rankin and Margaret Smith followed separate paths: one promoting pacifism; the other advocating military preparedness. Rankin respected Smith as the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Shortly before Rankin’s death in 1973, however, prospects for women in the Senate looked bleak. Margaret Smith had lost her bid for a fifth term. During the next six years, no women served in the Senate, and not until 1992 would more than two serve simultaneously.
Three-quarters of a century separated Rankin’s 1918 Senate campaign from that 1992 turning point. Since then, the slowly increasing number of women members has become the norm rather than the exception.
Smith, Norma. Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.