By Kevin S. Giles
When Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress exactly 100 years ago, many Americans cautiously wondered whether the newfound vote someday would send a woman to the presidency. (After another election, we’re still waiting on that question.) Rankin’s election to the US House, from Montana, came as women in only nine states and Alaska could vote and the nation didn’t yet have a federal suffrage amendment. Rankin foresaw the power of women as a voting bloc to enact social reform laws and ultimately, stop war, said biographer Kevin S. Giles, who describes in One Woman Against War: the Jeannette Rankin Story, how she became a symbol of that aspiration when elected in 1916.
“Why — Jeannette Rankin — you have given Suffrage the biggest push forward that could have possibly been given unless we could have elected a Woman President,” wrote the suffragist Rosalie Jones from her apartment in New York City. “We really all ran with you, here in the East, except perhaps a few old Suffrage mossbacks who thought ‘that perhaps it was too soon etc.’ You know the stupid old story.”
Throughout her life, Jeannette Rankin fielded questions about the possibility of a woman being elected to the Oval Office. In One Woman Against War, Giles recounts the story of a Boston woman who asked that question. Rankin replied: “Why, certainly. It is inevitable, and more important, even desirable. That time is not very distant. Probably fifty years, possibly sooner.” The woman asked if American men would approve. “They’ll be delighted,” Rankin said. “A man inherently likes to be governed by a woman. Matrimony proves that.”
In the 20 years between two world wars, Rankin became a devoted pacifist, believing strongly that women should use the vote to prevent future wars. She was the only American to vote in Congress against both world wars. She also led a Vietnam war protest march in Washington DC, named the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, in 1968.
But a woman as president?
When campaigning in Montana for the US House, Rankin had this exchange with schoolchildren, Giles reports in One Woman Against War:
“We got the vote in Montana, and they sent me to Congress. And we should have more women, and so on. And then I said, ‘When I was in high school and a member of Congress came and talked to us, they talked to the boys and told them what they could do. They could do all these things, and someday one of these boys may be President.’ And then they’d see the girls, and they’d smile at the girls and say, ‘And perhaps one of these young ladies will be the wife of a President.’ I’d say, ‘Now we know the girls can do many things. And someday we will have a woman President.’ And they roared with laughter.”
Through 60 years of political activism, Rankin never argued that a female president was essential to good government. Rather, she hoped for vigorous public involvement at all levels of government by men and women both.
Rankin died in 1973. Just what she would think of the 2016 presidential election remains a matter of speculation. Her legacy as a pacifist and reformer stands intact. A century after her historic achievement, Rankin remains the only woman ever elected to Congress from Montana.
Even more significant, history confirms her as the only Member of Congress to oppose both world wars. “Yet for all of the prominence those two antiwar votes brought her, it remains difficult to piece together how she transformed a basically timid and insecure personality and several early career setbacks into a charismatic public personage,” Montana scholar Joan Hoff Wilson observed. “The pioneer ideals she accepted in her Montana youth — hard work, honesty, perseverance — blended with her perceptions of women, international conflict and the destructiveness of war to make Jeannette Rankin one of the most unique female figures in American political history.”
The 2016 election makes clear that the prospect of a woman as president remains elusive. We take away many insights into the modern political mood, including that women don’t agree on the importance of achieving the highest office.
Jeannette Rankin reminded Americans that voting was a precious gift but political activism can’t wait for election cycles. It’s your government, she said. Make it so.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)