Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010

Jeannette Pickering Rankin

The Montana native made history in 1916 when at the age of 36 she became the first woman elected to Congress. The Suffragist grew up the eldest of seven children in Missoula and was treated by her father just as a son would have been treated at the time — she was expected to achieve the same level of success as a male. Having begun her career as a teacher in local schools (she earned a B.S. in biology), Rankin later attended the New York School of Philanthropy where she was trained as a social worker. For a short time she worked at the Children's Home Society in Spokane, Wash., until she realized that she did not enjoy working for an institution but rather preferred to effect change legislatively.

In 1910 she returned to her home state to fight for the passage of the newly introduced suffrage bill. Working for the Montana Equal Franchise Society, Rankin became the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature, saying that she was suspicious of a government that would tolerate a lack of female representation. Four years later, Montana granted women the right to vote. After her election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Rankin took her seat in an emergency session of Congress, called by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to discuss American involvement in the European war. Under pressure from women's groups, Rankin voted a tearful "no" to war — which may have contributed to her loss in a Senate race the following year. In 1941, maintaining her pacifist stance, she merely said "present" during the vote to declare war against Germany and Italy, which effectively ended her political career, though she continued to travel the world promoting peace, women's rights and electoral reform.