As the story goes, a harried newsman at the Daily Missoulian took a phone call on election night 1916.
The woman at the other end was wondering how the presidential race between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Hughes was going. How about the U.S. Senate race in Montana? At length she got around to the real reason she called. What, she asked, were the prospects for Miss Rankin in her race for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives?
"Oh, she lost," came the reply, from a man who really had no idea.
Thus Jeannette Rankin went to bed that Tuesday night at the family home on Madison Street – today the site of a hotel parking lot and a Jiffy Lube – thinking she’d failed in her bid to become the first woman in the world to be elected to a national legislative body.
She and the newsman were wrong, of course. As results trickled in over the next two days it became probable, then certain that the 36-year-old Rankin, born, raised and primarily schooled in Missoula, was on her way to Washington.
She read a prepared statement on Friday, promising to represent “not only the women of Montana but all American women and children.”
A leader in the fight that culminated in 1914 and gave the women of Montana the right to vote, Rankin said she planned to introduce legislation seeking a federal suffrage amendment, an eight-hour work day and equal wages for women.
Her statement didn’t address the war in Europe and the very real possibility of the U.S. getting involved, an issue that she’d face her first day on the job the following April. Her “no” vote then was one of 49. When Rankin returned to Congress a quarter of a century later, she cast the lone dissenting vote to joining World War II on the day following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The wildly unpopular vote sealed her political doom, as well as her legacy as one of the 20th century’s foremost peacemongers.
In 1985, a dozen years after Rankin’s death at age 92, a statue in her honor was dedicated in the U.S. Capitol. It’s inscribed: “I Cannot Vote For War.” There’s a replica in the state capitol in Helena.
All that was ahead of Jeannette Rankin in 1916.
By today’s standards, her history-making campaign had been blessedly short – just four months from the July day she declared her candidacy at a meeting of the Missoula County Good Government League in the Florence Hotel.
No scathing TV ads, no social media battles, no political debates. What “outside money” there was came primarily from the pockets of little brother Wellington Rankin, a well-placed Helena attorney who went on to become attorney general, a state Supreme Court justice and the leader of the Republican Party in Montana.
The younger Rankin, who had lost his own race for the state Legislature in 1914, orchestrated his sister’s campaign from his Helena law office – but not until exercising some legacy-saving muscle with a hurried drive over the Continental Divide.
“Jeannette was having a meeting with the women in Missoula,” Kevin Giles, one of Rankin’s biographers, told the Missoulian last week. “She’d called all these women together who had helped her in the suffrage movement.”
Those close friends all but convinced Rankin that a run for the U.S. House was a waste of time, Giles said. Worse, they maintained, her all-but-certain defeat would be an embarrassment to women and set national suffrage back.
“That was the mentality of that time,” said Giles, a reporter and former editor for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis who’s putting final touches on a revision of his 1980 biography “Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin.”
Torn, Jeannette gave her brother a call that July day a century ago.
“Wellington said, ‘Hold on. I’ll drive over to Missoula,’ ” Giles said. “By all accounts he was livid. When he got there he told Jeannette, ‘You’re going to run and you’re going to win.’ ”
And run she did, mostly behind the wheel of a Ford automobile and, at Wellington’s direction, mostly in the foothills and on the prairies of central and eastern Montana. The homestead boom was a boon for Jeannette Rankin. Montana had been allotted a second seat in the U.S. House, and for this election only, the state didn’t divide itself into two congressional districts.
Though her brother rarely appeared with her, Wellington Rankin directed and financed the campaign from his Helena office.
“By many accounts I’ve seen about Wellington, the guy was just headstrong,” Giles said. “He was never intimidated by anybody, and he was always the one who stepped in and made Jeannette go. She had all the talent in the world to make a run for Congress, but he was the energizer.”
Wellington “served as her shield and sword,” biographers James Lopach and Jean Luckowski wrote in “Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman.”
“Her part was doing what she loved most and did best, campaigning relentlessly.”
Attracting national attention
Within days of filing, Rankin was honored with a banquet in Butte and given “the unanimous endorsement of the Stevensville women’s club … at the home of Mrs. Frank Nickols,” the Missoulian reported.
A brass band greeted her in Fort Benton, and Rankin addressed 50 ladies at the Idaho Street home of Miss Jean Bishop in Dillon after giving talks to the Baptist Aid Society and the Manse Society. In Billings, as the primary election drew near, Rankin drew more than 500 people to an open-air meeting and “found sentiment unusually strong for her,” a special dispatch said.
Dynamic, determined, hard-headed and thick-skinned, Rankin soared to victory over seven men in the Republican primary. Her 22,500 votes were 7,000 more than runner-up George Farr of Miles City, who became her running mate in the general election against two Democrats, including incumbent and former Missoula mayor John Evans, and a pair of long shots from the Socialist party.
Third place went to a man better known for his writings on the ethnography of American Indians and the West – Frank Bird Linderman. (Linderman got a measure of revenge in 1924 when he outpolled Wellington Rankin for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, only to be trounced in the general election by Thomas Walsh).
People started paying closer attention.
“Towns and cities all over Montana are clamoring to secure the little lady for a speaking engagement, besieging the state committee. So Cut Bank is rather fortunate in being favored by a dating so early in the campaign,” opined the Cut Bank Pioneer Press in mid-September, in advance of Rankin’s appearance there.
Soon the national press was tuning in. The Seattle Times and Spokesman-Review in Spokane, the Salt Lake Herald-Republican and Oregon Register all remarked on this Montana peculiarity.
“Miss Rankin has a rare personality, a fine intellect and an unusual perspective, and her candidacy has aroused national interest,” said the New York Sun.
“She is tall, straight as a mountain pine, an entertaining speaker and has a wealth of red hair,” chimed a paper in Keokuk, Iowa.
In October the New York Times picked up on the themes, in condescending terms that Rankin had come to expect. The writer made no mention of Rankin’s political stances but gushed over a report that Rankin had red hair.
“There is no shade of red hair that is not prettier than the mud-brown which has become the American type,” he pronounced. “If she is elected to Congress she will improve that body aesthetically. Even when good, Congress is not beautiful, and needs adornment.”
Confident of victory
If the newspapers from across Montana are to be believed, the crowds for Rankin grew larger as Nov. 7 approached.
In Great Falls “the opera house was packed to the highest balcony and when Miss Rankin arose to speak, the demonstration was so prolonged and so deafening that it was several minutes before she was allowed to talk,” one widely distributed report said.
Several hundred people were turned away from a Rankin appearance in Anaconda, and in Butte two halls were packed. “When Miss Rankin finished speaking in one, she was hurried to the next one.”
Rankin spoke on an unfair tariff, the farm loan law, patents and appropriations. A marginal Republican at best – “I was never a Republican. I ran on the Republican ticket,” she later said – she nonetheless urged her supporters to vote straight Republican.
“Jeannette is the best stump speaker in Montana, can dance like a boarding school girl, and, believe me, she will lead those Congressmen a merry little two-step when she comes to Washington,” a national suffrage leader told J.R. Hildebrand of the Washington Times after the election.
Her hometown paper, confident of a victory on Election Day eve if not the next night, put the Rankin phenomenon in perspective.
“Her appearance in the national house of representatives,” the Missoulian opinion editor wrote, “will serve notice on the eastern conservatives that a new day has dawned in American democracy.”