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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Women’s History Month: A Major Women’s Anniversary Approaches

In not quite two weeks, on April 2nd, we will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the swearing in of the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, Jeannette Rankin.  This is clearly a major event in American history. 

I shared this fact with two different friends in entirely unrelated conversations last week, and they had exactly the same reactions:  they immediately blurted out, “she was in Congress before she could even vote?!”  Well, no, it didn’t work that way, and how it did work is part of Jeannette Rankin’s story. 

Jeannette Rankin was born in Missoula, Montana on June 11, 1880.  Her father was a rancher and her mother a schoolteacher.  She was the eldest of six children: five daughters and one son.  Besides helping with her younger siblings, Jeannette did her daily outdoor work and farm chores while helping to maintain the machinery at the ranch.  Once, she built a wooden sidewalk for one of her father’s buildings all by herself.  Years later, she said that as a child she had observed that women worked side by side with men as equals in the 1890s western frontier, but they did not have an equal political voice and were denied legal voting rights.

After high school, Jeannette attended the University of Montana.  She worked as a seamstress and a teacher and also tried social work.  Her social work experience was of sufficient interest that she furthered her studies at the New York School of Philanthropy, which later became the Columbia University School of Social Work.  She also attended the University of Washington in Seattle.  At this last, Jeannette became active in the women’s suffrage movement.  Further, in 1910, one of her associates in this work, Denver news reporter and women’s rights activist Minnie J. Reynolds, persuaded Rankin that pacifism was an inherent part of feminism. “The women produce the boys and the men take them off and kill them in war,” Reynolds argued.  Rankin’s reading of Benjamin Kidd’s 1918 book, The Science of Power, solidified her commitment to Reynold’s feminist-pacifist ideology. Kidd found in men a natural inclination to battle while he found in women a preference for peaceful settling of disputes. 

Jeannette had been active in the efforts in Washington State to grant voting rights to women, and those efforts succeeded in 1910, as Washington became the fifth state to allow women to vote.  She then moved home to Montana, where she started working toward similar rights there.  Her efforts were instrumental in achieving that goal in 1914, and Montana became the tenth state where women could vote.  Then Jeannette decided to try running for Congress.  Her brother, a lawyer and active in state Republican politics, helped finance and manage her campaign.  Montana had two Representatives who served a single state-wide “at-large” district.  In the election on November 7, 1916, of six candidates, Jeannette received the second highest vote total, 76,932, and 7,567 fewer than the front-runner.  She got 9,958 more than the third highest vote-getter, so her performance was quite respectable.  The following April 2, 1917, when the 65th Congress convened, she was greeted with enthusiastic applause as she took her seat in the House.

This was all in the midst of World War I.  In the opening days of April, newly elected President Woodrow Wilson asked for a Declaration of War.  This was granted on April 6; the vote in the House was 373 to 50.  Ms. Rankin was among the 50 “no” votes.  Because she was the only woman, her vote was all got considerable attention, not all of it complimentary.  Her other distinction in her one term in the House in that era was to initiate the legislation and help lead the push for passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which would give women the right to vote everywhere in the country.  The House passed this amendment twice during 1918, but each time the Senate narrowly voted it down.  It finally passed both Houses of Congress in 1919, after Rankin had left the House, and was ratified in late August 1920.

Jeannette Rankin ran for Senate in 1918, but lost in the Republican primary.  She then bought a small farm in Georgia and became a public speaker and lobbyist on behalf of peace and the prevention of war.  During that time, of course, World War II developed, and she returned to Montana to run for the House again in 1940, at age 60.  Pearl Harbor happened on December 7, 1941, and the vote in Congress to declare war Japan took place on December 8.  The vote in the Senate was unanimous and in the House, it was 388 to 1.  Asked to change her vote – actually by then-Representative Everett Dirksen – Ms. Rankin said, “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”  Reaction to her NO vote was so disruptive that she had to take shelter in a phonebooth in the Capitol Building until security officers could escort her out. This ended her political career. 

She did consider running again, however, in 1972, when she was 92, in order to argue against Viet Nam involvement, but her health would not permit.  She died in Carmel, California, on May 18, 1973.  While her pacifist sentiments had brought the most publicity in later years, she said in 1972 the she hoped she would be remembered most for being “the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote."

* * * * *

I composed this narrative for an event on March 19 at my home parish, St. Ann & the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, NY.  Called “Unsung Heroines”, this is becoming an annual Women’s History Month commemoration, celebrating notable women who receive relatively little recognition.  Among the other women lauded in parishioner presentations were Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer precursor to Chuck Berry and other rock-‘n-roll stars.  Presentations this year also included a couple of other suffragettes.

Sources for the material on Jeannette Rankin presented here include the Wikipedia article:, her entry in the U.S. House of Representatives “History” section:,-Jeannette-(R000055)/ and – interestingly – an entry in the U.S. Senate history section:  That selection begins, “No history of American representative government could properly be written without a major reference to Representative Jeannette Rankin.”  Detail on her pacifist positions is given in

Obviously, Ms. Rankin and her accomplishments have often been “sung”.  But the proximity of the anniversary gave ample justification for including her in a celebration of Unsung Heroines.

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