When this photograph of Jeannette Rankin was taken in Washington, D. C., in April 1917, she was at the beginning of what appeared to be a very promising political career. Her unpopular votes against the U.S.’s entry into World Wars I and II would bring an end to her political aspirations but would ultimately earn her widespread respect for adhering to her principles. MHS Photo Archives 944-480
Jeannette Rankin of Missoula, Montana, was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Unsurprisingly, her election made headlines across the country. People wanted to know who this western upstart was and what this radical change might portend. The Kentucky Courier-Journal captured the magnitude of the political quake when it wondered, “Breathes there a man with heart so brave that he would want to become one of a deliberate body made up of 434 women and himself?”
Born on a ranch near Missoula in 1880, Jeannette Rankin was the oldest of John Rankin and Olive Pickering Rankin’s seven children. She attended the University of Montana, and in 1908—inspired by the career of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, the famed Chicago settlement house—she headed to New York to study social work at the New York School of Philanthropy. She worked briefly as a social worker and then as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in several states’ suffrage campaigns. In 1914 Rankin returned to Montana to help lead her state’s suffrage movement to victory. Rankin believed that western conditions, in which men and women had to share the tasks of settlement, encouraged greater gender equality than existed in the East, making it easier to convince Montana men to give women the vote.
Building on the grassroots organization she had created in 1914, she ran for Congress as a Progressive Republican in 1916 and won the seat. When she learned that she had been elected, she said, “I knew the women would stand by me.” And indeed, newly enfranchised Montana women went to great lengths to vote for her. Edith Mutchler wrote to Rankin from Chester to tell her that she was eight months pregnant when she “rode 14 mi on a cold windy day” to cast her ballot, but testified that she “would gladly do it again.” Continue reading
Maggie Smith Hathaway outlined her positions on Prohibition, Child Welfare, and a “Workable Farm Loan Law” in this 1916 campaign flier. Maggie Smith Hathaway Collection, Mss 224, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana
On November 3, 1914, Montana became the eleventh state to empower women with the right to vote. Two years later, newly enfranchised Montana women helped elect Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House of Representatives. She took her seat as the first woman to serve in Congress four years before women achieved national suffrage. Rankin’s victory largely eclipsed another, equally significant 1916 victory: that year Montana also seated the first two women in the state’s House of Representatives. These women opened the door for those who followed in the political arena.
Emma Ingalls, a Republican from Flathead County, and Maggie Smith Hathaway, a Democrat from Ravalli County, represented opposing parties, but they both championed the cause of women’s suffrage and spoke out for the disenfranchised. As Ingalls and Hathaway took their seats in the Montana House in 1917, they represented the ribbon at the end of the finish line in a hard-won race. Conscious of their role as female reformers, both championed child welfare and women’s rights in the legislature. Continue reading
On November 3, 1914, Montana men went to the polls, where they voted 53 to 47 percent in favor of women’s suffrage. Along with Nevada, which also passed a suffrage amendment that year, Montana joined nine other western states in extending voting rights to non-Native women. (Indian women would have to wait until passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act to gain the ballot.) Montana suffrage supporters rejoiced, and in 1916 followed up their victory by electing Maggie Smith Hathaway (D) and Emma Ingalls (R) to the state legislature and Jeannette Rankin (R) to the U.S. Congress. In this seeming wave of feminism, May Trumper (R) also became the state superintendent of public instruction.
The Suffrage Daily News, the short-lived paper in which this photo ran on November 2, 1914, identified these suffrage campaigners only by their husband’s names while noting that the women had campaigned for the vote in four different Montana counties. Left to Right: Mrs. R.F. Foote, Mrs. J.B. Ellis, chairman, Silver Bow County, Mrs. H. Salholm, Mrs. A. Obermyer and Mrs. E.G. Clinch. MHS Photo Archives 951-821
An air of inevitability surrounded the victory but it had not come easily. Montana women’s rights advocates first proposed equal suffrage twenty-five years earlier at the 1889 state constitutional convention. Fergus County delegate Perry McAdow (R), husband of successful businesswoman and feminist Clara McAdow, championed the cause. He even recruited long-time Massachusetts suffrage proponent Henry Blackwell to address the convention.
Blackwell was an articulate orator, but he did not have the backing of a well-organized, grassroots movement. “There has never been a woman suffrage meeting held in Montana,” he lamented. Nevertheless, Blackwell hoped to convince the delegates to include constitutional language allowing the legislature to grant equal suffrage through a simple majority vote instead of requiring a constitutional amendment. That proposal failed on a tie ballot.