A national nonprofit organization based in Athens, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation awards scholarships annually to low-income women thirty-five years of age and older who seek financial assistance for undergraduate or vocational programs. The foundation bears the name of Jeannette Rankin, who in 1916 became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Born in Montana in 1880, Rankin was a longtime resident of Watkinsville. Upon her death in 1973, Rankin, a lifelong activist for women’s and children’s rights, bequeathed her estate in Watkinsville to assist mature women workers. The organization’s founders—Susan Bailey, Gail Dendy, Margaret Holt, Heather Kleiner, and Reita Rivers—used $16,000 from the estate to create the foundation.
The Jeannette Rankin Foundation was officially chartered in 1976 and became a 501(c)(3) charity in 1977. It awarded its first scholarship of $500 in 1978 to a nursing student at Athens Technical College. The foundation has grown considerably since that time, increasing the value of the scholarships to $2,000. In order to alleviate many of the obstacles that women face when returning to school, use of the scholarship money is not restricted to tuition. Recipients may use the funds to pay expenses that other, more restrictive, educational scholarships and loans do not permit, including books, child care, transportation, and general living expenses. Originally operated out of the founders’ homes, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation acquired its first office in 2001 in Athens and hired its first staff members, an executive director and program coordinator. The organization continues to expand, and in 2005 the office moved into a larger space and hired a program assistant.
Given its small staff, the foundation depends heavily on volunteer support. Each year hundreds of women and men from Athens and Atlanta read and review more than 1,000 grant applications. The organization also relies on fund-raising groups, called Circles of Support, that friends of the foundation have created in various cities across the United States. The Circles of Support raise funds both to support the work of the foundation and to help publicize the foundation and recruit members locally.
Since it was first established in 1976, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation has awarded scholarships totaling more than $1 million to more than 500 women from all over the United States. The foundation’s motto, “Women Succeeding through Education,” is reflected in the award recipients’ achievements. More than 80 percent of recipients have graduated from or are still attending school, and many have donated their time or money to the organization. The first award recipient became a nurse and sent her children to college; in 2004 she volunteered with the Jeannette Rankin Foundation to help pass along the gift of higher education to more women.