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Jeannette Rankin

November 5, 1918

Photo of Jeannette Rankin of Montana

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 antiwar 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 ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1918. 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 statewide 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."

At the time of Rankin’s death in 1973, the number of women serving in the House of Representatives had steadily grown, but prospects for women in the Senate looked bleak. Margaret Chase Smith had lost her bid for a fifth term and retired that year. No women served in the Senate during the next six years, and not until 1992 did more than two serve simultaneously.

Three-quarters of a century separated Rankin's 1918 Senate campaign from that pivotal 1992 election. Since then, the slowly increasing number of women members has become the norm rather than the exception.