A Seat in History

By Brad Dison

Jeannette Rankin was an exceptional woman. She was born and raised in the wilderness near Missoula in what was then the Montana Territory. Jeannette was a good student. Her mother, Olive Pickering, had moved from New Hampshire to the Montana Territory to teach before she met and married John Rankin, a prosperous rancher and builder originally from Canada. It may have been her mother’s desire to teach that led to Jeannette’s desire to learn.

Following her high school graduation, Jeannette attended Montana State University and, in 1902, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Jeannette taught for a short time and worked as a seamstress’s apprentice. Jeannette was not satisfied. She knew she could do more.

In 1904, Jeannette’s father died and she went to visit her uncle in San Francisco. It was there that Jeannette first heard of the Telegraph Hill settlement house. She learned that the settlement house was set up as a way for the middle and upper classes to help the poor class of society by sharing their experiences and education. In this hierarchy, based on her father’s financial success and her education, Jeannette was considered middle class. Jeannette volunteered at the settlement house and thus began her lifelong passion for social work.

Jeannette left San Francisco and enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy from which she graduated in 1909. From New York, she moved to Spokane, Washington, where she worked with impoverished children. In her spare time, Jeannette took more classes in the social sciences. She became an advocate for social reform, first as a volunteer and then as a field secretary with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Still, she thought there was more she could do.

On July 13, 1916, Jeannette announced her candidacy for one of Montana’s two seats in the United States House of Representatives. Her platform supported many prominent issues of the day which included child welfare legislation and the prohibition of alcohol. Jeannette was fighting an uphill battle. Her announcement garnered little attention. Many of the newspapers in Montana ignored Jeannette’s campaign altogether. National newspapers focused, not on Jeanette’s campaign, but mainly on the campaigns of the nearly 300 women in Kansas who were running for office at every level of government. Jeannette was lost in the shuffle.

Remember, Jeannette was an exceptional woman. In August of 1916, she won the Republican primary by more than 7,000 votes. On Tuesday, November 7, 1916, people throughout the country cast their votes for the candidates of their choice. The major election news was the narrow reelection of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to a second term of office. Montana and Jeannette were still ignored by the news media because Montana was so sparsely populated that no one knew the results of their election for three or four days. It took time to hand deliver election results from across the state on horseback. When the final votes were tallied for Montana’s two seats in Congress, incumbent Representative John Morgan Evans led by around 7,600 votes. He took the first seat. Jeannette beat the third-place contender by around 6,000 votes. She took the second seat.

The news media ignored Jeannette no more. On April 2, 1917, newspaper reporters took copious notes as Jeannette took the oath of office and took her seat as a United States Representative. She also took her seat in history. In 1917, Jeannette became the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Jeannette became a Congresswoman four years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote.

1. “Rankin, Jeannette, US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives.” 2020. @USHouseHistory. 2020. history.house.gov/People/Detail/20147.

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