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Courageous congressional pioneer Jeannette Rankin would be 139 today

Rankin was an unwavering feminist and pacifist. She served two terms in the U.S. House – 22 years apart, on the eve of World War I and then again on the eve of World War II.

Jeannette Rankin
Jeannette Rankin, shown in a 1939 photo, believed that if women had more political power, there would be fewer wars.
United States Library of Congress

Happy Birthday Jeannette Rankin, the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. If she were still alive, Rankin would be 139.

If you don’t recognize her name, that’s partly my fault. I’ve been on a campaign to make her more famous, which she certainly should be, but I fear I’ve failed. Last year I wrote about her on International Women’s Day. In 2016, I saluted her on the day Hillary Clinton became the first of her (and Rankin’s) gender ever nominated by a major party for the presidency. I have previously, as I do today, used the occasion of her birthday.

I’m back today to do it again on the 139th anniversary of her birth, in Missoula, Montana, in 1880, nine years before Montana became a state. Her story is glorious, courageous, amazing and kinda hilarious because of a small quirk of timing. But I’ll try to keep it short this time.

Rankin was an unwavering feminist and pacifist. She served two terms in the U.S. House – 22 years apart, on the eve of World War I and then again on the eve of World War II.

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Montana granted women the right to vote in 1914 (before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919 made women’s suffrage a right nationally). Rankin was 38 in 1916 and won one of Montana‘s two seats in the U.S. House, making her the first woman ever elected to either house of Congress from any state.

She helped organize a House Committee on Women’s Suffrage and argued for a women’s suffrage constitutional amendment.

World War I had started in 1914, but the United States stayed out. Then, in the middle of Rankin’s term, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war to get us in.  It passed, 373-50, but pacifist Rankin voted no, saying: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

It wasn’t a popular vote back home. In 1920, she ran for the Senate and lost. She spent the inter-war years working on various pacifist and feminist and social causes.

In 1940, at age 60, she made a political comeback and won a race for the U.S. House again. You can see what’s coming: In 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she was the only member of either house of Congress to vote against the U.S. declaration of war. I’m not saying she got that vote right, but she was a woman of high principle, saying: “If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.”

It wasn’t a popular vote. Like seriously not. A mob tried to attack her, and she took refuge in a phone booth from which the Capitol police had to rescue her.

If you’re thinking, since she was already 60, she’d be about washed up, you’d be wrong. She traveled to India, studied under Gandhi to become an even better pacifist, took up various social causes back in the U.S. and stayed healthy enough to make it to the Vietnam War era and, guess what? – she was against that war too. A group of women peaceniks named themselves the Jeanette Rankin Brigade and Rankin marched with them in her 80s.

In 1972, the year she turned 92, she considered running for Congress as a peace candidate, but didn’t. She died the following year, at 93, a mere 56 years after breaking the gender barrier in Congress.

Montana, by the way, has never elected another woman to Congress. But the current U.S. House includes 102 women members (89 Democrats and 13 Republicans), and the current Senate includes 25 women, (17 Democrats and eight Republicans). Both of Minnesota’s current senators are women, as are three of its eight U.S. House members.