A series of circumstances unique to Jeannette Rankin—and unique to Montana—made this victory possible. First, she possessed all of the qualities of an excellent candidate and she belonged to a wealthy and influential family that could provide the financial backing and the networking necessary to win a Congressional campaign.
She also ran in a state where she could actually win. In the less populated Western states, women in politics became a reality sooner than back East. This was certainly true in Montana where conservatives worried that the increasing influence of an expanding immigrant population would overshadow the interests of a white minority. Enfranchising the state’s women served the pragmatic political purpose of doubling the size of the white electorate with the stroke of a pen.
When Jeannette Rankin ran for the House, she ran as a Republican candidate and, unsurprisingly, attracted the state’s female voters. In a perfect example of principle meets pragmatism, she was the right person at the right place at the right time. Her gender had opened the door of opportunity and she had walked through that door into the House of Representatives on behalf of women everywhere.
Rankin believed that armed conflict was a “stupid and futile” means of settling international disputes, but she was nevertheless aware that a vote against the war in April 1917 would produce a strong backlash. Major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor criticized her decision and the Helena Independent even went so far as to label her “a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.”
But for Rankin, the “hardest part of the vote” was the way it alienated her from the national suffrage movement. Concerned that a close association with Rankin’s unpopular pacifism would damage their campaign, suffragists quickly backed away from the Montana Congresswoman. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, told the Helena Independent that “Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation––she represents Montana”––and “every time she answers the roll call she loses us a million votes.”
The cold shoulder that turned toward Jeannette Rankin immediately after the April 1917 vote on the declaration of war against Germany only foreshadowed the more ominous opposition that she would confront the following year.
The suffragists who had supported her run for the House of Representatives in 1916 withdrew their support in 1918 when Rankin made her next political move. Earlier that year the State of Montana eliminated its at-large House seat and created in its place eastern and western congressional districts. Rather than competing against a colleague for the western district seat or carpetbagging in the eastern district, Rankin decided to make a run for the Senate.
In response to news of this decision, Carrie Catt told the Helena Independent that, “for her sake as well as ours it is most advisable that she should quit at this stage.” To pour salt in the wound, Catt offered nothing but the kindest words for Rankin’s opponent, Democratic incumbent Thomas Walsh. In the end, opposition to the declaration of war, as well the perception that she held sympathies for radical labor activists in Butte, turned the voters against Rankin and she lost her bid for a Senate seat.
Throughout her life Jeannette Rankin continued to work in the interests of pacifism and social welfare after leaving the House of Representatives, and her words continued to echo with the radical timber for which she was famous. As a paid lobbyist, she became an advocate for child-labor reform, hunger relief, consumer protection, minimum wage/maximum hour legislation, and even a Constitutional amendment outlawing war.
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons