9 Facts About Jeannette Rankin, the First Woman Elected to Congress

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1916, four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the nationwide right to vote, Montana suffragist Jeannette Rankin—who was born on this day in 1880—became the first woman elected to the United States Congress. In her later years, she also led important crusades for peace and women's rights.

1. SHE WANTED TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Jeannette Rankin was born on June 11, 1880 on a ranch outside Missoula in what was then the Montana Territory. The oldest of seven children, she attended the local public schools and then studied biology at the University of Montana. After graduating from college in 1902, she tried a variety of jobs, including schoolteacher and seamstress. But Rankin began to sense her calling when she went to Massachusetts to care for her younger brother Wellington, who was studying at Harvard and had fallen ill. He recovered quickly, which allowed Rankin to travel around Boston and New York, where she saw the extreme suffering of those living in the slums, packed into unsafe, unsanitary tenements, while the wealthy lived the high life a few blocks away. A few years later, Rankin went to San Francisco to visit an uncle and witnessed the devastation that the 1906 earthquake had wrought in the city. Moved to do something, she went to work in a settlement house (a neighborhood center in a poor area where middle-class Progressives offered social programs) on Telegraph Hill. Rankin had seen poverty and misery in New York and Boston, but in San Francisco, she saw people dedicated to doing something about it. Now she knew what she wanted to do: become a social worker.

In 1908, she moved to New York City to attend the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia School of Social Work), and after receiving her social work degree moved to Washington state, where she worked at a children’s home in Spokane and another in Seattle. But continuously watching children suffer wore Rankin down, as did the sense that her work with individuals made little difference compared to the decisions made by the men in downtown offices who ran the agency. Rankin realized that perhaps social work didn’t offer the best path to forcing substantive change, so she turned her eye to policy.

Rankin returned to school at the University of Washington, where she read one day in 1910 that she could acquire free posters advocating women’s suffrage from the school’s College Equal Suffrage League. Rankin plastered the posters all over town, and her enthusiasm and work ethic caught the eye of a political science professor named Adella M. Parker, who suggested Rankin become a part of the campaign for women’s suffrage in Washington, which would be on the state’s ballot that November.

Women won the vote in Washington, and Rankin, invigorated, returned to Montana, where she joined the Montana Equal Franchise Society and gave speeches about accessing the vote. On February 2, 1911 [PDF], she spoke before the all-male Montana legislature, becoming the first woman to do so. Urging them to grant women the right to vote, she evoked the idea of “taxation without representation,” and suggested women belong in public service as well as in the home, arguing [PDF]: “It is beautiful and right that a mother should nurse her child through typhoid fever, but it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which typhoid resulted.”

Rankin began traveling as a professional suffrage activist, giving speeches and organizing campaigns in New York, California, and Ohio before returning to fight for the vote in Montana, where women’s suffrage passed the legislature in 1913 and a popular referendum the following year. Rankin then took a position as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, advocating for the vote in several states from 1913 to 1914.

2. SHE RAN A GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGN TO WIN A SEAT IN CONGRESS.

Rankin decided to run for Congress in 1916. She came from a family familiar with public service: Her father had been involved in local politics before his death, and her brother Wellington was a rising star in the state Republican party (he would be elected Montana’s attorney general in 1920). Wellington urged his sister to run and served as her campaign manager. His political connections plus her experience in grassroots organizing proved a winning combination.

In 1916, Montana had two at-large congressional districts, meaning the entire state voted for both representatives rather than dividing districts based on geography. One of Montana’s Democratic congressmen was retiring, and Rankin launched a statewide campaign for his seat. She took campaigning seriously, later recalling that she “traveled 6000 miles by train and over 1500 miles by automobile” during her bid. This was in marked contrast to the “seven mediocre men” she faced in the Republican primary, who, she said, “had too much dignity [to] stand on the street corner and talk.”

She beat those “mediocre men” handily in the August 1916 primary—surpassing the second-place finisher by 7000 votes—but the Montana GOP still had little enthusiasm for her candidacy, expending scant effort or money on her behalf. Nevertheless, Rankin put together a progressive platform: She advocated for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day for women, transparency from Congress, and policies to protect children. She ran a non-partisan grassroots campaign that worked to mobilize all of Montana’s women, and which included voter “registration teas” across the state at which women were registered to vote by a notary public.

3. THE MEDIA HAD NO INTEREST IN HER—AND THEN THEY WERE OBSESSED.

Rankin came in second in Montana’s at-large Congressional race, meaning she secured one of the two available seats. But in those days ballots were counted by hand, which took a long time. Montana newspapers—likely not taking her candidacy entirely seriously—initially reported that Rankin had lost. It wasn’t until three days later that the papers had to change their tune: Miss Rankin was headed to Congress.

Suddenly journalists across the country were clamoring to interview and photograph the nation’s first congresswoman. Photographers camped outside her house until Rankin had to issue a statement saying she was no longer allowing photos and would “not leave the house while there is a cameraman on the premises.” Before the election, Rankin’s team had sent The New York Times biographical material about their candidate, only to have the Times return it and run a mocking editorial urging Montanans to vote for Rankin because “if she is elected to Congress she will improve that body aesthetically, for she is said to be ‘tall, with a wealth of red hair.’” A month later, the paper was profiling her more seriously, reporting on her suffrage work and noting that she had “light brown hair—not red.” Of course, due to her gender, a profile on Rankin could not be limited to political topics. The Times also reported on her “Famous Lemon Pie,” and informed readers that “She dances well and makes her own hats, and sews.” Other newspapers took a similar tone.

4. SHE VOTED AGAINST ENTERING WORLD WAR I …

Rankin’s first week in Congress began auspiciously, but soon became contentious. On April 2, 1917, the day of her swearing in, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage honored Rankin with a breakfast, and she gave a brief speech from the balcony of NAWSA headquarters. Then the suffragists escorted her to the Capitol in a parade of flag-bedecked cars. When she arrived at her office, it was filled with flowers sent from well-wishers, and she chose a yellow and purple bouquet to carry onto the House floor. Once at the House chamber, congressmen treated her to a round of applause, and she was sworn in to cheers. The watching wife of a Texas congressman recorded in her journal that “When her name was called, the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice.”

But the day was soon to grow serious. That evening, President Wilson appeared before Congress and asked them to pass a declaration of war against Germany. The Germans had recently resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and though Wilson had been reelected on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” the president now believed the time for military action had come. Two days later the Senate passed a declaration of war with only six dissenting votes, and the House would convene to vote the following day.

Rankin was uncertain about what to do. She was a pacifist but was under pressure from her brother, Wellington, who urged her to issue a “man’s vote” (i.e., in favor of war), telling her that anything else was career suicide. Some suffragists were also lobbying her for a “yes” vote; they believed a “no” would make women look too sensitive for politics. In the early morning of April 6, after hours of passionate speeches, the House voted: Rankin failed to answer during the first roll call, and when her name was called a second time, she rose and said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Forty-nine Congressmen joined her in dissenting, but the declaration of war passed the House anyway. Walking home, Wellington told Rankin she would likely never be reelected, and her vote did earn her copious negative press coverage. But Rankin did not regret her choice. Years later, she commented, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

5. … AND THE PRESS CALLED HER VOTE “A FIT OF FEMALE HYSTERIA.”

For many, Rankin’s rejection of war was a sign of her excess feminine emotion, and newspapers reported that she had wept, trembled, and even swooned while delivering her vote. She was “overcome by her ordeal,” declared The New York Times. The humor magazine Judge took issue not with her vote but with her apparent manner: “It was because she hesitated that she was lost. […] If she had boldly, stridently voted ‘no’ in true masculine form, she would have been admired and applauded.”

According to eyewitnesses, however, Rankin did not sob, faint, or otherwise display any “feminine weakness.” However, several of her fellow lawmakers did weep. Suffragist Maud Wood Park, who watched from the gallery, noted that “She may have shed a few tears before or after she voted; but if so, they were not evident in the gallery; whereas the Democratic floor leader, Claude Kitchin, the nth degree of the he-man type, broke down and wept both audibly and visibly during his speech against the resolution.” New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia later told reporters that though he did not notice Rankin crying, his vision had been obscured by his own tears. “It was no more a sign of weakness for Miss Rankin to weep, if she did, than it was for Congressman Kitchin to weep,” suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt told The New York Times.

6. SHE FOUGHT TO MAKE WOMEN’S CITIZENSHIP INDEPENDENT OF THEIR HUSBANDS’.

Passed on March 2, 1907 [PDF], the Expatriation Act stripped any American woman who married a non-citizen of her own American citizenship. In contrast, a non-citizen woman who married an American man automatically gained American citizenship. Following the legal tradition of coverture, the Expatriation Act of 1907 asserted that, upon marriage, a wife’s legal identity was collapsed into that of her husband. This act understandably caused problems for many American women, but the Supreme Court upheld the law in 1915, ruling that “marriage of an American woman with a foreigner is tantamount to voluntary expatriation.” In 1917, Rankin introduced a bill to amend the Expatriation Act to protect married women’s citizenship. Morris Sheppard, a Democrat from Texas, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

But by this time the United States had entered World War I, and anti-foreigner sentiment—especially anti-German sentiment—was at a fever pitch. During a series of hearings before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, congressmen and other men presenting testimony showed little empathy for American women who would marry foreigners, and expressed worry that allowing such women to retain their citizenship would allow them to aid or protect German spies.

Rankin spoke assertively in the face of derision from fellow lawmakers. When Representative Harold Knutson, a Republican from Minnesota, remarked, “The purpose of this bill, as I understand it, is to allow the American woman to ‘eat her cake and still have it,’” Rankin coolly replied, “No; we submit an American man has the right to citizenship, regardless of his marriage, and that the woman has the same right.” But despite Rankin’s forceful defense of her bill, and testimony from women about its necessity, it was tabled by the committee.

It would take several more years for women’s citizenship to be protected in the same way as men’s. In 1922, after the war had ended and the 19th Amendment had given women the vote, Representative John L. Cable from Ohio sponsored the “Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act.” The law allowed any American woman who married a foreigner to retain her citizenship, providing her new husband was eligible for American citizenship himself. (This caveat meant that American women who married Asian men still lost their citizenship, as Asians were not legally eligible for naturalization. Chinese immigrants, for example, gained access to naturalized citizenship in 1943, while all race-based requirements for naturalization were eliminated in 1952.) In 1931, Congress introduced a series of bills removing the final restrictions on married women retaining their citizenship.

7. YOU DIDN’T NEED TO WATCH YOUR MOUTH AROUND HER.

Rankin had seen things: During her time as a social worker she had worked in tenement houses and slums, and she spent two months in the New York City night courts, primarily serving prostitutes. But the men she encountered often tiptoed around certain subjects and words. One euphemistic discussion with male lawmakers about “communicable disease” prompted Rankin to exclaim, “If you mean syphilis, why don’t you say so?”

Another time, during a House hearing about women’s suffrage, a Dr. Lucien Howe testified that women should not be given the vote because the infant mortality rate is too high in the U.S., and so women must devote all their attention to taking care of children and not waste any on politics. He ranted about the number of children who become blind because their mothers pass gonorrhea on to them, and because the mothers lack the “intelligence” to treat the babies’ eyes with silver nitrate drops. Rankin took him to task:

Rankin: How do you expect women to know this disease when you do not feel it proper to call it by its correct name? Do they not in some states have legislation which prevents women knowing these diseases, and only recently after the women’s work for political power were women admitted into medical schools. You yourself, from your actions, believe it is not possible for women to know that names of these diseases. (Pause.)

Dr. Howe: I did not like to use the word ‘gonorrhea ...’

Rankin: Do you think anything should shock a woman as much as blind children? Do you not think they ought to be hardened enough to stand the name of a disease when they must stand the fact that children are blind?

8. SHE WORKED TO SAVE THE LIVES OF MOTHERS AND BABIES.

When Rankin was first elected, the magazine Town Development dubbed her the “Babies’ advocate”—an image she certainly cultivated. To avoid alienating voters put off by a female candidate, Rankin presented herself as a traditional, feminine woman, a mother for the nation’s children, saying during her campaign that “There are hundreds of men to care for the nation’s tariff and foreign policy and irrigation projects. But there isn’t a single woman to look after the nation’s greatest asset: our children.”

A 1918 report from the Children’s Bureau on maternal and infant mortality rates shone a harsh light on that reality: As of 1916, over 235,000 infants died per year in the United States, while 16,000 mothers died in childbirth. Many of those deaths were preventable, but American women, especially in rural areas and among impoverished families, often lacked adequate prenatal and obstetric care. Rankin worked with the Children’s Bureau to develop pioneering legislation, H.R. 12634, that would address these issues: The bill proposed cooperation between the states and federal government to provide education in maternal and infant hygiene, funding for visiting nurses in rural areas and hospital care for new mothers, and consultation centers for mothers. It would have become the nation’s first federal welfare program.

Unfortunately, the bill never made it to the floor. However, after Rankin had left the House, Senator Morris Sheppard and Representative Horace Towner resubmitted a (somewhat watered-down) version of her legislation in 1920. Thanks largely to the urging of women’s groups—who now represented millions of new voters—President Harding endorsed it, and Rankin lobbied for the offspring of her legislation while working for the National Consumers League. President Harding signed the Sheppard-Towner Act into law on November 23, 1921. (Unfortunately, thanks to opposition from the American Medical Association and other powerful interests, it wasn’t renewed by Congress in 1927 and was defunded in 1929.)

9. SHE SPENT THE BULK OF HER LIFE AS A PEACE ACTIVIST.

After Rankin's election, the Montana legislature divided the state geographically into two congressional districts. This made reelection essentially impossible for Rankin, as she lived in the Democrat-heavy western district, cut off from her base of farmers in the eastern part of the state. In order to be able to campaign statewide, Rankin ran for the Senate in 1918, instead of running for reelection to the House. She lost the Republican primary and entered the general election as a candidate for the National Party, but fell far short of the votes needed to win. Rankin left Congress in 1919 after serving a single term.

After leaving Congress, Rankin worked for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom for several years and then co-founded the Georgia Peace Society. She also spent five months in 1929 working for the Women’s Peace Union, a radical pacifist organization that wanted to eliminate war by passing a constitutional amendment rendering it illegal. But they were too extreme even for Rankin, who moved on to the National Council for the Prevention of War. Then, in 1940, she decided to take another stab at politics, running to reclaim her Montana congressional seat. Thanks to endorsements from prominent Republicans like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, she won, rejoining Congress over 20 years after finishing her first term.

But as fate would have it, Rankin found herself, once again, in the position of voting on a declaration of war. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress gathered to officially declare war on Japan. Once again, Rankin voted “nay”—the only lawmaker in either house of Congress to do so. When she declared, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” a chorus of hisses and boos arose from the House gallery. Journalists mobbed her as she tried to leave the chambers, and Rankin hid in the House cloakroom until Capitol policemen arrived to escort her safely back to her office.

There was no way for Rankin to recover politically, and she declined to seek a second term. But she continued in peace activism into her old age, leading thousands of women—called the Jeannette Rankin Brigade—in a protest against the Vietnam War in 1968. Then in her nineties, Rankin was contemplating another run for the House when she died in 1973.

Additional Sources: Interview with Jeannette Rankin, Suffragists Oral History Project, University of California, 1972; “Jeannette Rankin, Progressive-Isolationist.” Doctoral Dissertation, Princeton University, 1959; “Visuality in Woman Suffrage Discourse & the Construction of Jeannette Rankin as National Symbol of Enfranchised American Womanhood,” Master’s Thesis, Empire State College SUNY, 2011.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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