It's Been 100 Years Since America Elected Its First Woman to National Office 

In Depth

Today’s presidential contest falls the day after a major anniversary—the hundredth of the first woman’s election to federal office.

Time points out that Montana’s Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives on November 7, 1916, predating even the 19th Amendment. (Like many western states, Montana adopted women’s suffrage beforehand.)

According to James Lopach and Jean Luckowski, authors of Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman, what made it happen was a combination of her ground game, which built on her time spent campaigning for women’s suffrage in the state—“She had built a tremendous base of women who were very loyal. They had clubs and she organized them,” Luckowski told Time—as well as her alignment with the then-hot temperance movement, the support of her influential and well-connected brother, and finally the fact that at the time, Montana didn’t divide the state into congressional districts but rather just sent the two folks with the highest share of votes. Rankin wasn’t shy about gunning for the second spot.

Politico quotes a contemporary who said she was also one hell of a campaigner:

“She was one of the ablest campaigners that I ever saw,” a male state legislator later observed. “If she heard of a vote a hundred miles up in the mountains [or] in some isolated canyon up there, she would go up and see them, drive up there and it didn’t make any difference about the roads. … She would go anywhere. Anywhere—a house of prostitution, it didn’t make any difference to her what it was—she would make herself at home. … She was a tough person.”

Of course, Rankin’s message in 1916 was a product of its time; Politico notes that like many suffragists of her generation, she tended to frame her appeal in terms of how women were different and might therefore vote and govern differently from men:

“Babies are dying from cold and hunger,” she would proclaim in one of her congressional speeches. “Soldiers have died for lack of a woolen shirt. Might it not be that the men who have spent their lives thinking in terms of commercial profit find it hard to adjust themselves to thinking in terms of human needs? Might it not be that a great force that has always been thinking in terms of human needs, and that always will think in terms of human needs has not been mobilized? Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the Nation at this time?”

Rankin would serve one term then make a run at the Senate but lost, thanks in no small part to her pacifism and her controversial decision to vote against America’s entry into World War I. However, she would run again in 1940 and win—only to vote against American entry into World War II, which was even less popular than her first time around. (Rankin was literally the only nay.) She didn’t run for re-election, but she continued her anti-war activism, leading a peace protest on Capitol Hill in 1968, at the age of 87.

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