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Memorial highway Missoula's latest tribute to Jeannette Rankin

Memorial highway Missoula's latest tribute to Jeannette Rankin

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It was short and so Jeannette.

The 18 graduates of the University of Montana’s class of 1902 were asked to supply biographical information to the Weekly Missoulian. The woman who would become Missoula's most famous and most widely quoted native was by far the most succinct.

“Jeannette Pickering Rankin," she wrote in the third person, "a native Montanan, she was born at Grant Creek, June 11, 1880, and attended the public schools at Missoula until the time of her entrance to the University. Her favorite studies were the sciences.”

Thursday was a good time of June and a good time of Woman to celebrate the latest Missoula tribute to Rankin — bookend brown signs at the east and west entrances of town marking a five-mile stretch of U.S. Interstate 90 now known as Jeannette Rankin Memorial Highway.

Two Democratic legislators from Missoula, Rep. Kimberly Dudik and Sen. Diane Sands, pulled off to the shoulder of Interstate 90 near the mouth of Grant Creek valley to talk about this and other tributes to Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in 1916 and a dedicated if controversial peacemaker until the day she died in 1973.

Sands used her hand to count off the others: Jeannette Rankin Park on the south end of the Madison Street Bridge, Jeannette Rankin Peace Center on South Higgins, the new Rankin Elementary School in lower Miller Creek, Rankin Hall on the UM campus, and the main post office on Kent Street, where dedication is pending. It was approved by Congress and signed into law last fall, but a date for its renaming ceremony is uncertain due to the COVID-19 crisis, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said Thursday.

Before the pandemic there was speculation it would happen around Aug. 18, the date in 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th and last necessary state to ratify the 19th Amendment that gave all women in the U.S. the right to vote.

Even though she was out of Congress by then, it was a milestone day for Rankin. In her first House term (she ran again and won in 1940), she led the cause for the suffrage amendment.

“If I am remembered for no other act,” she said later in life, “I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

Dudik and Sands said a number of events centering around the centennial of the final women’s suffrage victory had been planned for this spring, only to be sidetracked by the unruly virus and resulting restrictions. They and two other women, one of them former state senator Carol Williams, were at the short highway dedication on May 22, standing in the tall grass on the south side of the interstate.

“It was an opportunity to do this in a year that’s the 100th anniversary of the national suffrage amendment when we can acknowledge not just Jeannette but other women who used the political tool of the ballot by running for office,” Sands said.

The 1916 election was the first following the 1914 approval by male voters to give women in Montana the right to vote, something for which Rankin and many others had campaigned tirelessly. Sands pointed out that Maggie Smith Hathaway of Ravalli County and Emma Ingalls of Kalispell were elected to the legislature the same year. May Trumper became Montana’s first female state superintendent of schools and in her 12 years in office initiated an era of statewide school reform.

Dudik drafted four bills in the closing weeks of the 2019 Legislature to honor Montanans with memorial highway designations. Three were women — Rankin, Minnie Spotted-Wolf of Heart Butte, and Dolly Smith Akers of Wolf Point. Spotted-Wolf, Akers and Louis Charlo of Evaro were American Indians.

Other legislators took over sponsorship of three highway bills, but Dudik, in her fourth and final consecutive term in the Montana House, championed the Rankin bill. 

“This was the one I wanted to keep,” said the attorney and unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in the June primary.

Sands brought the bills home in the Senate, more than 30 years after she served on a citizen advisory committee for a more grandiose dedication of a statue of Rankin in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 1985. That one drew more than 500 people, including Montana governor Ted Schwinden, senators Max Baucus and John Melcher and representative Ron Marlenee. 

Westbound travelers will see one Rankin Memorial Highway sign near milepost 106 as they emerge from Hellgate Canyon and approach the Van Buren Street exit. It’s across the river from the university and, Dudik said, as close as they could get it to the Rankin's elaborate town home that once stood near a corner of Madison Street and East Broadway.

Eastbound interstate traffic zips past the other sign approaching the Reserve Street exit near milepost 101, where Dudik and Sands met on Rankin’s 140th birthday.

They stood roughly two miles below the site of the Grant Creek ranch house where John and Olive Pickering Rankin welcomed their first of six children into the world. A neighbor told the Missoulian the historic house in which Jeannette Rankin was born was removed several years ago by the ranch’s current owners, billionaire industrialists and philanthropists Dennis and Phyllis Washington.

“Maybe some kid will be driving by and see this sign and wonder who Jeannette Rankin was and want to do a report on her,” Sands speculated.

“Or even adults will be like, oh, I wonder who she was,” Dudik said. “Because people don’t know her history.”

Like Interstate 90, that history stretches from coast to coast, far beyond the boundaries of the Rankin Memorial Highway.

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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