Childhood & Early Life
Jeannette Rankin was born on June 11, 1880, near Missoula, Montana, Olive Pickering Rankin and John Rankin. She was eldest among the six siblings. While her mother was a school teacher, her father worked as an immigrant carpenter and rancher.
Since Jeannette was the eldest child of the family, she assisted her parents in daily chores and outdoor works. She also took care of her younger siblings. Hardworking and laborious, she helped maintain the ranch machinery.
Academically, Rankin attended high school and later enrolled at the University of Montana. She graduated in 1902 with a B.Sc. degree in biology.
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After completing her studies, Jeannette Rankin initially tried her hands in various professions such as dressmaking, furniture designing and social work.
In 1908, after realising that her true passion lies in social work, she enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy in New York City and passed out from the school in 1909..
In 1909, Rankin relocated to Spokane, Washington. Therein, she attended the University of Washington. It was while at the university that she became involved in the women suffrage movement. Soon, she organized the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and served as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1910, Washington voters approved an amendment to their state constitution permanently enfranchising women; Washington became the fifth state in the Union to do so.
In 1911, Rankin created history by becoming the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature. Therein, she made her case for women’s suffrage. She actively worked to make amendments in the state constitution that would give women the right to vote. Her hard work finally paid off in 1914 as Montana granted women unrestricted voting rights.
In 1916, Rankin ran for a seat in the US House of Representative. After extensive campaigning and travelling, she finally emerged victorious, becoming the first woman to serve in the Congress.
Rankin’s service as a member of the House of Representative began on a dramatic note. The Congress summoned an extraordinary April session to take votes for participation in the war waged by Germany. A committed pacifist, Rankin did not shy away and openly voted against war, thus becoming one of the fifty people in opposition against War.
During the war, Rankin served for the cause of right of women who took part in the war effort. She also acted as a catalyst in making the movement for voting rights become a universal enfranchisement. By 1918, she had successfully helped women gain voting rights in forty states.
In 1919, Rankin’s effort women paid off as the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by the United States Congress that granted women right to vote.
Rankin’s congressional term ended in 1919 and thereafter she focused her energies on pacifism and social work. She was one of the delegates for the Women’s International Conference for Permanent Peace in Switzerland in 1919. Later, she joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and became an active member.
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During the early 1920s, Rankin served as a field secretary for the National Consumers League. In this profile, she lobbied the Congress to pass several social welfare legislations such as banning of child labour and passage of Sheppard-Towner Act.
In 1928, Rankin founded the Georgia Peace Society. The Society served as a headquarters for her pacifism campaign. From 1929 to 1939, she became a leading lobbyist and speaker for the National Council for the Prevention of War. She also remained active in advocating social welfare programs.
A war crisis in 1940 led Rankin to resume her political career. She successfully ran for a seat in the US House of Representative, defeating incumbent Jacob Thorkelson. Following her victory, she was appointed in the Committee on Public Lands and the Committee on Insular Affairs.
Similar to her first congressional term, the threat of war was looming over US yet again, this time World War II. Rankin was adamant on his pacifist stand and was strongly against U.S. intervention in the World War II, even after the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 that had silenced much of the anti-war sentiments.
The Congressional meeting on December 8, 1941 was iconic as Rankin became the only member in both the Houses of Congress to vote against the declaration of war against Japan. The war resolution passed against 388-1 votes. Her pacifist stand was mocked by press and public alike who were outraged by her opposition. Also, it marked the end of her political career.
Rankin retired from active politics in 1942, rather than face a certain defeat in the re-elections. Post politics, Rankin spent much of her later life travelling. She studied Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifist teachings and non-violence protest tactics.
Rankin’s pacifist policies became highly inspirational for pacifists, feminists and civil right advocates during the 1960s and 70s. It was in 1968 that Rankin yet again came to prominence for leading from front the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of women's peace groups, in its anti-war march in Washington, DC against Vietnam War.