Support Local Journalism


Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy for president of the United States began, symbolically, in Missoula 100 years ago.

On Nov. 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin came in second place in Montana's U.S. House of Representatives election with 76,932 votes, according to state records. And back then, Montana sent two representatives to the House on Capitol Hill, electing both from a single at-large district.

Thus did Rankin make world history, becoming the first woman ever elected to a legislative body. It was a milestone for the ongoing gender equality movement and an increasing number of women in politics.

Three hundred and twelve women have served in Congress since. Thousands more have been elected to state and local government positions. As the first elected, Rankin's legacy has been glorified by proud Montanans, a state that enacted full suffrage years before the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920.

In March, Democrat Denise Juneau started her 2016 House campaign in front of Rankin's statue. "Growing up in Browning and on the Blackfeet Reservation, I would have never believed it possible to be standing here today in front of Jeannette Rankin and all of you,” Juneau told supporters at the state capitol in Helena, according to the Independent Record.

But scholars can list several myths surrounding Rankin and her legacy.

Home is where the heart is

Rankin, the eldest of seven siblings, was born in 1880 to John and Olive Rankin, a notable family in Missoula. But Jeannette badly wanted out of Montana, and lived in Washington, New York and Georgia. In 1973, she died in Carmel, California, and her ashes were scattered into Monterey Bay.

Jim Lopach and Jean Luckowski are retired professors from the University of Montana who also live in Missoula and who co-authored the 2005 book "Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman."

In an interview last week, they said after John Rankin died in 1904, Jeannette "bristled" at the expectation she was to stay at home in Missoula to manage the family's domestic affairs while her younger brother Wellington went off to Harvard and entered politics.

"Go! Go! Go! It makes no difference where just so you go! go! go! Remember at the first opportunity go!" Jeannette wrote in her journal while in Montana.

Jeannette felt stifled by her mother and the family life. So she did go. In 1909, Jeannette earned a master's degree in social work from a university in New York City. After a brief time back in Missoula, she moved to Washington state.

But she didn't work in that field or that state long before devoting herself to the suffrage movement. Between 1910 and 1916, she visited 13 states campaigning with the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

"That's where she really discovered what her talents were," Lopach said of Jeannette's campaigning and public speaking.

She then came back for her politics. At Jeannette's urging, Montana's state Legislature extended voting rights to women in 1914, but two years later, it wasn't just new women voters who elected Jeannette.

How Rankin won in 1916

"Most people think that she was elected because of the woman vote, but it's not that simple," Luckowski said. "And the suffrage leaders were not too excited about her being the first one. I think there was some bias against her.... I think they would have preferred an East Coast long-time suffrage leader to have been elected, not Jeannette."

Jeannette's brother Wellington, the top Republican in the state, ran Jeannette's congressional campaign and used his wealth to fund it. He also wrote her major speeches.

But Jeannette was better off-script, more natural and compelling when not reading — a product of her public speaking training in Washington and her years campaigning for suffrage.

"Don't forget that she was on the stump, speaking a lot of times to women and men who had never seen a woman doing this as effectively as she could and they said she was spell-binding and charismatic. The unusualness of her presence had a big impact," Luckowsi said.

And their research, Lopach said, leads them to think that the upper-class Jeannette was effective in the streets, bars and bordellos.

"She really was as a child interested in what her dad did at the sawmill and on their ranch. She really appreciated labor so I think she had some affinity with all voters," Lopach said.

Montana's new women voters tended to vote the same as men, which didn't help Jeannette, he said.

But her work as a suffrage campaigner, and the organization of "good governance" clubs across the state to promote suffrage, helped her become the second most famous Montanan after the Democratic governor and provided the campaign a statewide network.

She was also aided by the prohibition movement, which had allied with the suffrage campaign in its quest to ban alcohol.

"The newspapers at that time said that wherever prohibition was supported strongly, Jeannette Rankin was strongly supported," Lopach said. "She appears to have been aided by the women's vote, the prohibition movement, and her brother's money, and the fact that it was an at-large election.... The women's vote is just one of four or five factors and probably not the most important factor."

First anti-war vote was feminist, not pacifist

Jeannette is often celebrated as a dedicated pacifist.

But in 1917, when Jeannette voted against the United States entering World War I, "It was based on her feminism," Lopach said. Jeannette said she had to vote the way she did because she was a woman, not because she was a pacifist.

During her second term in 1941, Jeannette, the day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, was the only member of Congress to vote against the United States entering World War II. She had become an absolute pacifist, but the scholars say it was rooted in feminism.

"We concluded that her feminism and pacifism are just absolutely linked," Lopach said. "She was an essentialist, where she felt that women are essentially different from men and that women contribute to society things essentially different than men and one of these things is peace."

Jeannette believed the only way world peace would come about was if women were in control of society. And in later years, Jeannette felt that the feminist movement in the United States was too interested in abortion rights and not sufficiently interested in worldwide issues like peace, Luckowski added.

The myth of her 1918 loss

"Her anti-war vote in 1917 cost her her office," reads Jeannette's biography in the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Lopach and Luckowsi disagree.

Unlike the 1941 vote, Jeannette was one of 57 no votes against World War I, they said. And at her brother's strong promptings, she voted for war against Austria, she campaigned for war bonds, and she said "the war must be won."

And Jeannette's friends in the Industrial Workers of the World convinced her to come to Butte to help settle an impasse with the Anaconda Company and miners unions. 

"Rankin was then associated with the IWW element, the violent labor movement. The Rankin family called it later 'the poison,'" Lopach said.

A second factor was gerrymandering. The state was divided into two districts, and the more popular Democratic U.S. Rep. John Evans ran in the west, forcing Jeannette to consider the eastern Montana district. The eastern district's partisanship favored a Republican, but Jeannette didn't want to be called a carpetbagger.

So instead, Jeannette chose to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Thomas Walsh, a Democrat from Helena. Her base support, she hoped, would come from women, workers and populist farmers.

And Carrie Chapman Catt, a key leader in the movement toward the 19th Amendment, opposed Jeannette's challenge. Walsh was a dependable vote for the national suffrage amendment.

"Rankin was a loose cannon for Catt," Luckowski said.

"They couldn't control her," Lopach added. "It felt like there was just a few people who could, Wellington could and maybe a national suffrage leader like Harriet Laidlaw... They were doing everything they could to get her to drop out because she might defeat a male suffrage leader like Walsh."

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or He's on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.