The national “Votes for Women” campaign began 1916 in rough shape. Internal drama rocked the major national suffrage organization after it broke apart in a dispute over strategy. Early gains in statewide suffrage for Montana and Utah in 1914 were followed by defeats in 1915. All four suffrage referenda held that year (MA, NJ, NY, and PA) went down to defeat.
At the grassroots level, however, widely scattered efforts got underway. Month by month, over the course of 1916 numerous women candidates sought election to Congress, and several had entered major-party primaries that now dominated candidate selection throughout the country.
In February, Kansas physician Eva Harding “shied her bonnet into the ring” for the Democratic congressional nomination to represent Topeka. Her chances of becoming the first major-party woman nominee looked good. Since 1914 most of the county superintendents were women, and the number of women running for state and local offices in Kansas that year came close to 300. Beyond Harding’s campaign no further news was made about other women candidates for Congress that spring.
Then, in early July, news came out of Montana that Jeannette Rankin, who led Montana’s woman suffrage campaign to success in 1914, had announced her candidacy for one of the two Republican nominations to Congress. Montana had two At-Large seats and both would be chosen by the voters in the same ballot.
August brought a flurry of activity. Two more women announced their candidacies. In Washington the widow of one of the state’s first Senators, John B. Allen, announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to succeed her husband. To increase her chances of winning she ran as “Mrs. John B. Allen,” but a local newspaper doubted that anything could be done to increase the elderly widow’s chances of election.
A more formidable candidate announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to Congress from Seattle, Washington, state legislator Frances C. Axtell. A veteran of a successful electoral campaign and an experienced legislator, Axtell made further news when she broke from the National Woman’s Party to run for the Democratic nomination. Odds seemed high that Axtell would become the first woman elected to Congress.
Further developments came in August. Eva Harding lost in the Kansas Democratic primary, immediately announcing her intention to run in the fall as an Independent. Late in the month, though, Jeannette Rankin gained enough votes in the Montana Republican primary to be one of two Republican candidates to Congress.
In October Josephine Marshall Fernald, a musician, became the Democratic candidate for San Francisco’s congressional district. But Fernald, a political novice, was seen as more a sacrificial lamb than a serious challenger to the longtime incumbent Julius Kahn. Meanwhile, coverage of Jeannette Rankin's campaign was sparse. Campaigning against the state’s mining interests which controlled the newspapers, she rarely appeared in press reports. Outside Montana she remained obscure. In mid-October the Indianapolis Star misidentified her as “Jeannette Lee.”
Only as Election Day neared did some reporters become aware that several women had been nominated by major political parties to Congress. In a piece carried in several newspapers, reporter Lisetta Neukom profiled five women candidates for Congress: Washington Democrat Axtell, Montana Republican Rankin, Kansas Independent Harding, Pennsylvania Socialist Elizabeth Baer, and Alaska Territory Socialist Lena Morrow Lewis. Speculation grew that several women could be elected. Rankin was frequently mentioned, and she was paired with San Francisco’s Fernald or Colorado Progressive Hettie K. Howard. Colorado Progressives, however, withdrew their entire slate of candidates just before the election.
Election night did not lift the campaign’s fog. West Coast results did not come in until the next day. Frances C. Axtell, the Washington state legislator, had been defeated for Congress. Initial reports out of Montana that Rankin had won one of Montana’s two At-Large seats proved premature. Another three days passed before Rankin was declared the winner of the second seat.
Rankin’s victory was both a triumph and the initial wedge for women in national office. Despite the divisions among the suffragists that plagued the movement at the beginning of 1916, the election of the first woman to serve in Congress at the end of the year revitalized the campaign. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” Rankin proclaimed, “but I won’t be the last.”
Sources: Baltimore Sun, 28 May, 25 August 1916; Christian Science Monitor, 21 July, 25 October 1916; Detroit Free Press, 29 October 1916; El Paso Herald, 4 November 1916; Indianapolis Star, 20 October 1916; New York Times, 21 February 1916; Oroville Weekly Gazette, 8 September 1916; San Francisco Chronicle, 9 July 1916; Seattle Star, 9 August 1916; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 August, 13 August, 11 November 1916; Washington Evening Star, 5 November 1916; Washington Post, 20 February 1916; Washington Times, 31 October 1916; Alan Ware, The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States, enlarged edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: The Official Results of the Elections of the 1st through 105th Congresses (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 1998); Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002).
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.Follow @USHouseHistory