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Today We Honor the Only Woman Who Ever Voted to Give U.S. Women the Right to Vote

100 years ago, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress

(Public Domain via the Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

The road leading to Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to run for president as the candidate for a major American political party was paved by plenty of women who came before her. But with the election just a few hours away, there are few who are more poignant than Jeanette Rankin, who became the first woman elected to Congress 100 years ago today.

Rankin’s life was defined by her ambition and drive. Born near Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880, Rankin came from humble roots. Her father was a rancher and her mother was a schoolteacher. Rankin earning a biology degree from the University of Montana and then tried out teaching like her mother, according to Biography.com. However, after that didn't stick, Rankin worked as a seamstress and a social worker before she found her calling in the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement.

At the time, several states were seriously considering giving women the right to vote (though the reasons why weren't always commendable), but it would be years before the passage of the 19th Amendment secured women across the country a voice in politics. In fact, it was Rankin’s hard work as an activist and lobbyist that got the 1914 Montana state legislature to grant women the right to vote in her home state, according to her biography at the U.S. House of Representatives. But that still wasn’t enough for her, and a few years later Rankin ran to represent Montana in Congress.

“I tell these young women that they must get to the people who don’t come to the meetings,” Rankin said in 1973, just before her death, Josh Zeitz reports for Politico. “It never did any good for all the suffragettes to come together and talk to each other. There will be no revolution unless we go out into the precincts. You have to be stubborn. Stubborn and ornery.”

That sentiment rang true when she first ran for office. Rankin was well-known among Montana’s political world for her tenacity in reaching out to voters and swaying them, with a reputation for traveling to far-off communities and visiting places some thought unsavory in an effort to sway citizens to back her, Zeitz reports. All that hard work paid off in 1916, when Rankin was officially elected as the first female member of Congress.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last,” she said after hearing the news, according to her biography for the House of Representatives.

True to form, Rankin’s time in Congress was defined by her dedication to women’s equality. She fought for an early, unsuccessful attempt at adding the right to vote to the Constitution, and was instrumental in initiating the legislation that would become the 19th Amendment. (Her vote on the original House resolution made Rankin, as she later noted, “… the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.” ) However, her gender wasn’t the only controversial thing about her: a dedicated pacifist, Rankin was one of the few members of Congress to vote against entering World War I. That decision effectively destroyed her chance for reelection and followed her on her subsequent campaign for one of Montana’s seats in the Senate, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Still, Rankin was undeterred. She continued to be active in the political sphere, and later won a second round in the House of Representatives in 1940, partly because of her staunchly anti-war stance. But once again, her dedication to peace cost her politically: even after the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, she refused to go along with the war effort, casting the single vote against entering World War II, according to the Office of the Historian of the House of Representatives.

For the rest of her life, Rankin continued to be an active voice in politics as women became more and more common in government positions from the local to the federal level. After spending several decades abroad, she spent her final days in the U.S., watching the Watergate hearings on television, Zeitz reports. She had no idea that one of the many attorneys working for the House Judiciary Committee on the case—a lawyer by the name of Hillary Rodham—would later take the biggest swing yet at shattering the glass ceiling that Rankin had cracked.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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