Jeannette Rankin’s career—and the controversy surrounding it—tells us a great deal about what’s changed in the past 100 years, and what hasn’t.
100 years and a day before Hillary Clinton will cast her vote in a bid to become the first female president of the United States, Jeannette Rankin, a 36-year-old rancher’s daughter from Missoula, Montana, who had devoted her early career to women’s suffrage and progressive reform causes, voted in her state’s federal and local elections. That night, when all the ballots were counted, she made history, becoming the first woman ever to be elected to Congress. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she declared after her landslide victory. “But I won’t be the last.”
No less than Hillary Clinton, another trailblazer, Rankin was deeply controversial in her time. But her career—and the controversy surrounding it—tells us a great deal about what’s changed in the past 100 years, and what hasn’t.
For one, first-wave feminists like Rankin did not challenge the idea that there should be separate spheres for men and women; instead they embraced the prevailing orthodoxy and used it to their favor. Like many of her colleagues in the women’s movement, Rankin claimed a role in politics by insisting that women, not men, best knew how to safeguard public health, education and safety.
Ironically, though she fought a much lonelier battle and won a more improbable victory, in some ways, it was easier for Rankin than it is for Clinton today. When she was the only woman to hold elective office at the federal level, she was regarded by some as a “freak.” Few men anticipated a tidal wave of women in politics, which made her less threatening than Clinton—and her gender less a part of the conversation.