First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916, four years before the Nineteenth Amendment extended suffrage to all women in the United States.

Summary of Event

Jeannette Rankin’s 1916 election to the U.S. House of Representatives was a landmark occasion. Before that time, only a few women had ever held public office in the United States, none at the national level, primarily because women did not have the right to vote in most of the United States. Suffrage;women Woman suffrage;U.S. Women;politicians U.S. Congress;first woman member [kw]First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress (Nov. 7, 1916) [kw]Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress, First (Nov. 7, 1916) [kw]U.S. Congress, First Woman Is Elected to the (Nov. 7, 1916) [kw]Congress, First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. (Nov. 7, 1916) Women;politicians U.S. Congress;first woman member [g]United States;Nov. 7, 1916: First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress[04090] [c]Women’s issues;Nov. 7, 1916: First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress[04090] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 7, 1916: First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress[04090] Rankin, Jeannette Stanton, Elizabeth Cady

The American colonies, and later the United States, based their legal system on English common law. Under common law, a married woman could not own property (even property that she brought into the marriage) and had no legal identity separate from her husband’s. During the colonial period, voting and office holding usually were restricted to property owners and hence were closed to married women. There were a few instances in which unmarried women (spinsters or widows), as property owners, voted in the colonial period, and at least one woman tried to serve in a colonial legislature. On January 21, 1648, Margaret Brent, a landowner who would have been entitled to a vote in the assembly if she had been a man, tried unsuccessfully to be seated in the Maryland House of Burgesses. She demanded two votes in the assembly, one as the executrix for the estate of the deceased governor and one for herself as a freeholder.

After the American Revolution, qualifications for voting and holding office gradually were relaxed. Nothing in the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution specifically prohibited women from voting or holding office. These decisions were left to the states. For a brief time after the Revolution, some women voted in a few states. As the states drew up constitutions, however, most specifically restricted suffrage to males over the age of twenty-one and began to eliminate property qualifications for voting and holding office. Soon, all adult white males were eligible to vote in all states, and no woman could vote anywhere.

Jeannette Rankin.

(Library of Congress)

Women in the United States were more concerned in those years with their economic and legal status than with their political status. The rights to vote and to hold public office were so far outside their experience that most did not even realize they could demand such rights. Women’s concerns focused on economic and social issues, such as protection from abusive husbands, the right to initiate divorce proceedings, and control over their earnings, their property, and their children. Many were encouraged when New York became the first state to pass a married woman’s property act (1849) and was emulated by several other states, but women still had to contend with many laws that were not in their best interests.

A few women realized that the only way they could influence legislation and get rid of discriminatory laws was by voting for and serving as members of legislative bodies. One of these was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, with Lucretia Mott and three other women, organized the Women’s Rights Convention Women’s Rights Convention (1848)[Womens Rights Convention] held at Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19-20, 1848. The convention adopted the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” modeled on the Declaration of Independence, which cited women’s grievances against men, including the denial of suffrage to women and their resulting lack of representation in legislative bodies. The ninth resolution, calling for woman suffrage, was considered so radical that the convention delegates passed it by a narrow margin only after heated debate; it was the only resolution that was not passed unanimously.

Although some women in eastern states organized for the right to vote after the Seneca Falls convention, the first gains for woman suffrage and women’s right to hold office came in the West. In 1869, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature passed the first woman suffrage bill in the United States. In February, 1870, Esther Morris Morris, Esther of South Pass City, Wyoming, became justice of the peace. She was nominated for the legislature in 1873 but withdrew before the election. Wyoming continued woman suffrage when it became a state in 1890 and was joined by Colorado (1893), Idaho (1896), and Utah (1896). Utah also allowed woman suffrage as a territory (1870-1887).

It was during the suffrage campaign in Washington State that Jeannette Rankin began her involvement in political activity as a means of improving conditions for women and children. Like many reformers of the Progressive Era, she became aware of the plight of the poor during visits to several cities. Progressive movement At the time, she was a restless young woman from Missoula, Montana, searching for her place in life. She attended the New York School of Philanthropy, where she learned from many of the country’s leading social activists. She graduated in 1909 and worked briefly as a social worker, but she became so frustrated by laws that handicapped rather than helped women and children that she left social work. She enrolled at the University of Washington and worked for the woman suffrage movement there. Her role in the Washington suffrage victory (1910) was small, but through her involvement she developed the belief that woman suffrage offered the best way to change laws that were unfair to women and children.

On February 2, 1911, Rankin spoke to the Montana legislature on behalf of a woman suffrage bill and asked that it be submitted to the voters in a referendum. The bill was narrowly defeated, but Rankin had inspired many Montana women, who offered their assistance in a future suffrage campaign. She also attracted attention from suffragists outside Montana who invited her to join their campaigns. Her experience working in suffrage campaigns in New York, California, Ohio, Florida, and Michigan led to her appointment as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1913.

When the Montana legislature called a woman suffrage referendum in 1914, Rankin resigned from the NAWSA and returned to Montana to lead the campaign for suffrage. As president of the Montana Equal Suffrage State Central Committee, she traveled throughout the state. While building a network to support suffrage, she also laid the foundation for her later campaign for public office. She focused on the ways in which women voters could improve conditions relating to the home and children’s welfare.

On July 11, 1916, Rankin announced that she would be a candidate for one of Montana’s two at-large seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although most of her ideas leaned toward those of the Progressive Party, she filed as a Republican candidate. One of eight candidates (and the only woman), she campaigned widely throughout the state, with her brother, Wellington Rankin, serving as her campaign manager. She accused the federal government of caring more about hogs than about children and contended that Congress needed a woman to look after the interests of children. She was not the only woman running for Congress in 1916; unsuccessful female candidates campaigned in California, Colorado, and Washington.

Soon after the polls closed, it looked as though Rankin had lost, and she prepared to concede the election to the other Republican candidate, George Farr. The votes from the rural areas of eastern Montana changed the balance in Rankin’s favor, however, and two days after the election, Jeannette Rankin was declared the winner, the first woman ever elected to Congress. Her election was especially surprising given that the Democratic presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, carried Montana.

Significance

Jeannette Rankin’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives had significant impact on the political activities of women in the United States. It encouraged woman suffrage and served notice that elective public office was open to women.

The most immediate impact was on woman suffrage. Rankin’s election encouraged all factions of suffragists. Such leaders as Carrie Chapman Catt Catt, Carrie Chapman of the NAWSA and Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party united temporarily to honor Rankin before she was sworn in at the emergency session of Congress on April 2, 1917. When Rankin voted against U.S. entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, Catt reacted angrily, believing that Rankin’s vote hurt the suffrage movement. Thereafter, the relationship between the two women was uneasy, and Catt supported Rankin’s male opponent when Rankin ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1918. Nevertheless, Rankin cosponsored the proposed woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution and opened the debate in the House of Representatives on January 10, 1918. She was not, however, a member of the Congress that finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, which extended suffrage to women, and she had little role in the final campaign for it in Congress or in the ratification campaign that culminated in victory in August, 1920.

Rankin’s election to the House of Representatives signified that elective public office, and especially membership in the U.S. Congress, was no longer restricted to men. She decided not to seek reelection to the House in 1918, as redistricting had placed her in a congressional district where she had little support, and her vote on the war was very unpopular in Montana. She instead ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. Soon, however, more women became congressional candidates, and a few of them were elected. Between Rankin’s first election to Congress in 1917 and her second on November 5, 1940, twenty-five women were elected to the House and one, Hattie Caraway Caraway, Hattie of Arkansas, was elected to the Senate. (The first woman senator, however, was Rebecca Latimer Felton Felton, Rebecca Latimer of Georgia, who was appointed to fill a vacancy from October 2, 1922, to November 22, 1922.) The number of women serving in each Congress remained small, far below the percentage of women in the U.S. population. It was not until the 1982 election that the total number of women ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives reached one hundred.

Women also made slow gains in other elective offices. Two women were elected as state governors in 1924. Nellie Tayloe Ross Ross, Nellie Tayloe of Wyoming was elected to complete her deceased husband’s term but was defeated for reelection in 1926. Miriam A. Ferguson Ferguson, Miriam A. of Texas was elected to complete the term of her impeached husband, James. She lost bids for reelection before winning another term in 1932. Not until 1974, when Ella Grasso was elected governor of Connecticut, was a woman elected to a governorship whose husband had not previously held the office. Since the 1970’s, women have been elected to public office in the United States in increasing numbers, especially on the state and local levels. Women;politicians U.S. Congress;first woman member

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braden, Maria. Women Politicians and the Media. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Discusses how women politicians have been scrutinized by the American media and how the media’s treatment has influenced public perceptions of these women, beginning with Jeanette Rankin. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. New York: Praeger, 1973. A collection of brief personal and political biographies of the eighty-five women who served in the U.S. Congress between 1917 and 1972, with a postscript on the effects of the 1972 election. Good information on Rankin’s elections and activities in Congress. Chart of women members of Congress 1917-1973. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clift, Eleanor. Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Brief history of the suffrage movement in the United States describes important events and organizations and provides background on the movement’s leaders. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996. Sound standard account of the women’s rights movement is useful for placing Rankin’s election to Congress in the context of its time. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gertzog, Irwin N. Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior. 2d ed. New York: Praeger, 1995. Study of women in Congress uses material from interviews (with forty-five members of the 103rd Congress) to examine how women have become integrated into the House of Representatives and the impact they have had. Includes tables, appendixes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giles, Kevin S. Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin. Beaverton, Oreg.: Lochsa Experience, 1980. Biography focusing on Rankin as a dissident and feminist. Useful for insights into her character and family relationships and for information about her elections to Congress (1916 and 1940). Extensive material on her antiwar activities. Includes references and some photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harper, Ida Husted. History of Woman Suffrage, 1900-1920. 1922. Reprint. New York: Arno, 1969. Fifth volume in the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s official account of the suffrage movement. Contains limited information about Rankin’s activities as a suffrage worker, her election, and her sponsorship of the suffrage amendment. Coverage reflects the cool relationship between Rankin and the NAWSA leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGinty, Brian. “Jeannette Rankin: First Woman in Congress.” American History Illustrated 23 (May, 1988): 32-33. Brief article focuses on Rankin’s congressional career. Also presents brief biographical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National American Woman Suffrage Association. Victory: How Women Won It—A Centennial Exposition, 1840-1940. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1940. Uncritical brief account of the achievement of woman suffrage. Reflects the NAWSA’s position but gives little information on Rankin. Includes a useful chart showing woman suffrage in states and territories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Joan Hoff.“’Peace Is a Woman’s Job . . .’: Jeanette Rankin and American Foreign Policy—The Origins of Her Pacifism.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 30 (January, 1980): 28-41. First of two parts. Deals primarily with Rankin’s antiwar attitudes and actions. Brief biographical information and an analysis of the influences on her character. Some mention of her congressional campaign. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. General history of women in the United States. Chapters on feminism and suffrage and on the twentieth century help place Rankin’s election in context. References, photographs, tables, and index.

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National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment

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