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the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry in both world wars
Jeannette Rankin was born in Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880. After attending the local schools she graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in biology in 1902. She spent a short time teaching in country schools before taking an apprenticeship as a seamstress and supported herself by taking in sewing.
In 1908, Rankin enrolled at the New York School of Philanthropy. She then became a practicing social worker in Seattle, Washington, and eventually enrolled at the University of Washington. The women's suffrage movement was gaining energy at this time; Rankin joined the state organization and began to actively campaign for the cause. She ultimately served as legislative secretary of the National Woman's Suffrage Association. Her efforts helped Montana women win the right to vote in 1914.
In 1916, Rankin ran for a seat in Congress, on a progressive Republican platform that addressed women's issues, child-protection laws, and prohibition, among other social issues. Although she won the election, Rankin was initially unsure whether she truly had political abilities. Her fears were unfounded, however, as she soon revealed herself to be well educated, widely traveled, and sophisticated, and earned the respect of many of her male colleagues. During her term, Rankin introduced the first bill that would have allowed women citizenship independent of their husbands. She also supported government-sponsored pre-natal and child-care education for women.
An outspoken isolationist, Rankin was one of 49 members of Congress to vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917. This unpopular stand cost her the Republican nomination in 1918. After leaving Congress in 1919, she became a lobbyist and returned to social work.
Running on an anti-war platform in 1940, Rankin again won election to the House. Her desire to keep the United States out of another world war got her elected, but her vote against declaring war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor effectively ended her political career. (Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry in both world wars.)
Rankin did not seek re-election in 1942, but she did continue to campaign for peace and social reform throughout the rest of her life. Drawn by the "non-violent resistance" teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, she made several trips to India between 1946 and 1971, and she participated in demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Jeannette Rankin died at her home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, on May 18, 1973. A statue of her represents Montana in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.
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This page was last updated on May 17, 2017.