Jeannette Rankin, the first American woman elected to Congress, was also well known for her devotion to peace, women`s rights, and the elimination of child labor.
Born on a ranch in Montana on June 11, 1880, Jeannette was the eldest of 11 children born to John Rankin and Olive Pickering. Her father was a rancher and lumber merchant, and her mother was a former teacher. Later, the family moved to Missoula where Jeannette began to attend public school. In 1902, she graduated from Montana University with a bachelor of science degree in biology, and began to work as a teacher.
In 1904, while visiting her brother, Rankin saw first hand how the underprivileged lived in the slums of Boston. It was then she decided to pursue social work, and in 1908 she entered the New York School of Philanthropy.
Following graduation, Rankin moved to Washington State to become a social worker. After a period of work in a children`s home, Rankin found that social work no longer held her interest, so she decided to return to school. She enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle and became involved with the struggle for women`s suffrage.
Between 1909 and 1914, Rankin campaigned throughout California, Washington, and Montana on behalf of women`s suffrage. In 1912 she was elected to be the legislative secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Society, and in 1914, she returned to Montana to help organize the Montana suffrage campaign.
The year 1916 ushered in the beginnings of change in the United States. Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Shortly after her election, Rankin introduced a bill that would allow citizenship to women independently of their husbands, and grant them the right to vote. The bill was quickly defeated by the Senate.
One of the most important decisions Rankin would make occurred in 1917, when she was one of 49 members of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on Germany. She received many pleas from other women suffragists to change her vote, arguing that it would hurt their cause. In 1918, Rankin ran for the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, but lost because of her views on the war, birth control, trade union rights, and equal pay for women.
After her term ended, Rankin campaigned for several different causes, including the Maternity and Infancy Protection Act and the Child Labor Amendment. She also participated in the National Council for the Prevention of War, the Women`s International League for Peace and Freedom, and worked as a staff member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rankin moved to Georgia where she purchased a farm and formed the Georgia Peace Society. At the same time, she lobbied with the Women`s Peace Union for an antiwar constitutional amendment. Soon after, she began working with the National Council for the Prevention of War and lobbied for bills, including labor reforms and an end to child labor.
In 1940, with the threat of impending war, Rankin was once again elected to the House of Representatives. In December 1941, Rankin alone voted against the declaration of war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. With that vote, her political career was all but over and she would not seek reelection.
With her political career behind her, Rankin continued to tour and speak on social reform. Among her many stops was India where she studied the pacifism of Gandhi. In 1960, she established a self-sustaining women`s co-operative in Georgia and became active in the campaign against American involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
On may 15th, 1968, at the age of 87, Rankin led more than 5,000 women on a demonstration in Washington, D.C., to demand the United States` withdrawal from Vietnam. The Jeannette Rankin Brigade, as they were called, stood at the base of Capitol Hill to oppose the hostilities in Indochina. That was to be her final battle.
After spending the last few years of her life at her home in Carmel, California, Jeannette Rankin died on May 18, 1973. In 1985, the State of Montana placed a statue of Rankin in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol Building.