Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and a longtime resident of Watkinsville, left an indelible mark on Montana, on Georgia, and on the nation through her activism on behalf of women’s rights and pacifist ideals.
The first of John Rankin and Olive Pickering’s seven children, Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born June 11, 1880, in Missoula, Montana, and graduated from Montana State University in 1902. She then enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy to study social work. After she graduated, Rankin moved to Spokane, Washington, to work for a children’s home, but she became increasingly involved in the woman suffrage movement.
In 1910 Rankin gave up a career in social work to focus exclusively on women’s voting rights. The National American Women Suffrage Association sent Rankin as a representative of the organization to lobby politicians in favor of expanded suffrage to several states where the issue was on the ballot. Rankin returned home to Montana in 1911 to form a state committee for suffrage. This group worked tirelessly to ensure that the citizens amended the Montana state constitution to include women’s suffrage. The organization achieved its goal when Montana women won the right to vote in 1914.
During this period, Rankin discovered that her true talent and interest lay in politics, and she decided to run for Congress in 1916 on the Republican ticket. Her platform included women’s suffrage, laws to protect children, prohibition, and an antiwar position, all issues central to the Progressive movement then fully underway in the United States. World War I had broken out in Europe in 1914, and Rankin was one of many Progressive reformers who had actively campaigned against America’s entry into the war. She won her congressional race in November 1916, becoming the first female member of the House of Representatives when she took her seat early in 1917 at the age of thirty-six. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson won reelection at the same time, largely on the campaign theme that “He Kept Us Out of War.”
But soon after the election, German aggression against U.S. ships intensified, and by the time Rankin entered Congress, the country was on the brink of entering the war. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson called a special joint session of Congress to ask the House of Representatives and the Senate for a declaration of war against Germany. Congresswoman Rankin received pressure from many groups to vote for the war resolution, but in the end, she voted her conscience and was one of fifty members of the governing body to vote against the United States’ entry into the war.
Although she was not able to keep the country out of the war, Rankin was able to see her other great passion—women’s suffrage—realized during her first term in Congress. In 1918 she led the debate that was integral to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives. Two years later, after three-fourths of the state legislatures ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, all American women were constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote. Nevertheless, the Republican Party in Montana, unhappy with Rankin’s antiwar stance, kept her from running for a second congressional term.
Rankin continued her political activism after leaving Washington, D.C., touring the nation and agitating for peace. While traveling, Rankin sensed a strong antiwar sentiment in the South, and this inspired her to purchase a sixty-four-acre farm in Bogart, Georgia, just west of Athens, in 1923. Rankin, along with faculty members from the University of Georgia, founded the Georgia Peace Society in 1928 and unsuccessfully lobbied the Georgia legislature to pass a state constitutional amendment banning war. In the early 1940s her home in Bogart burned down. Rankin sold the land and moved to nearby Watkinsville, where she purchased the property that she would own for the rest of her life.
In 1939 Europe was once again embroiled in war, and Rankin felt that the peace movement deserved representation in Washington. She returned to Montana to run for a second term in Congress. Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1940 on a staunch antiwar platform. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Rankin once again had to decide whether or not to send American troops to war. When U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941, Rankin was the only member of Congress to oppose America’s entry into World War II (1941-45).
At the end of her term, Rankin did not run again for Congress. The next twenty years of her life were filled with trips all over the world, including India, where she studied Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy. She made Watkinsville her home base, though she also spent much of her time at an apartment in Carmel, California.
In 1967 Rankin was once again thrust into the national spotlight after newspapers published stories about a speech she had made opposing the Vietnam War before the group Atlantans for Peace. From then on, the anti–Vietnam War movement claimed Rankin as one of their own. Rankin traveled around the country making speeches and lobbying politicians for peace, just as she had for women’s suffrage more than fifty years earlier. In 1968 she led a march on Washington; as thousands marched to the Capitol, they held a banner calling themselves “The Jeannette Rankin Brigade.” She continued to keep an active schedule, giving speeches against the Vietnam War until late in 1972, when she became ill and physically unable to travel.
Rankin spent the last few months of her life surrounded by family and friends in California and died in her sleep on May 18, 1973, at the age of ninety-two. Jeannette Rankin ensured that her legacy would live on in Georgia by leaving her land in Watkinsville to “assist mature, unemployed women workers.” A group of Rankin’s family and friends used the money from the sale of her land to start the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, which is based in Athens.
In 2005 Rankin was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.