Early on November 7, 1916, households with telephones in Montana received a call. “Good morning! Have you voted for Jeannette Rankin?”
For months, Rankin had been campaigning to win a seat in the U.S House of Representatives. It proved to be a hard battle: no woman had won election to Congress before. In fact, at the time, the vast majority of American women did not have the right to vote. In addition, the Montana press covered her campaign sparingly, she had trouble financing her operation, and some constituents simply doubted that women should run for public office. However, Rankin finished second in the race for two At-Large House seats, and became the first woman to serve in the national legislature.
Since Rankin’s historic campaign, women running for Congress have experienced similar obstacles. In a series of interviews conducted by the Office of the Historian to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rankin’s election, former women Representatives reflected on their congressional campaigns and the challenges they faced as women candidates. They identified how creating a concise theme, assembling a strong campaign team, and using effective tactics helped them win election.
As is the case at nearly every level of government, having a campaign theme that embodies the candidate’s stance on relevant issues allows the message to spread easily and effectively. Often, campaigns use short slogans to summarize their candidate’s platform.
In 1972, Pat Schroeder ran against Republican incumbent Mike McKevitt to represent Denver, Colorado. Local Democrats doubted she would win, but encouraged her to run nonetheless, to “talk sense into the American people.” Schroeder’s campaign slogan, “She Wins. We Win,” allowed her to communicate that her stance on humanitarian rights and her opposition to the Vietnam War would benefit everyone. Her slogan also clearly stated she was a woman. In her oral history, she explained there was some confusion because of her name, Pat. “We didn’t want anybody to think I was male,” she recalled. “Schroeder is such a long name, that we weren’t going to do Patricia, but we wanted to make sure they knew I was a female.” Despite early reservations about her candidacy, Schroeder won the seat and served in the House for 24 years.
An essential part to any campaign is the workforce behind the scenes. A candidate cannot win an election alone. With a strong team of volunteers and paid staff, nominees can better publicize their campaign.
When Representative Claudine Schneider first ran for Congress in 1978 in Rhode Island, local newspapers doubted her chances. In her oral history, Schneider remembered one reporter saying, “Look, you’re young, you’re a woman, you have no money, you have no name-recognition. How do you possibly expect to win?” In order to combat such preconceptions, Schneider focused on expanding her volunteer base. Her friend devised an idea of a “Claudine’s 15s” club. If a supporter donated $15, volunteered for 15 hours, or talked to 15 other people about Schneider, they became part of the “Claudine’s 15s” and received a special campaign button. This system gave supporters a sense of belonging and incentive to keep Schneider in the running. Although she lost in 1978, her volunteers had greatly improved her name recognition, which helped her to win her second congressional bid in 1980.
Many women candidates faced an even greater obstacle than name recognition: lack of support from their political party, limiting their funding and ultimately their outreach strategy. To overcome that challenge, candidates implemented direct campaign techniques. In 1972, Elizabeth Holtzman successfully challenged 50-year House veteran and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Emmanuel Celler of New York, in the Democratic primary. Her lack of financial support from the Democratic Party during the campaign limited her ability to buy TV and radio advertisements. Instead, she recalled, “I substituted shoe leather for dollars.” She and her team approached every person they came across while canvassing neighborhoods in the Brooklyn district, working everything from subway stations to bingo lines, shaking hands and informing voters she was running for Congress.
In her oral history, Holtzman recognized the financial challenges young women face when running for office—she had first-hand experience. But she also reflected on how her gender gave her an advantage in this aspect during the campaign:
Since Jeannette Rankin’s election, more than 300 women have successfully campaigned to serve in Congress. While both men and women running for office rely on themes, teams, and tactics to win election, oral histories shed light on how those strategies helped female candidates combat the added challenges they often faced.
In her interview, Representative Sue Myrick of North Carolina marveled at Jeannette Rankin’s first campaign: “How in the world did she get elected when she was definitely in a man’s world?” She credited Rankin for opening the door for women into national politics but pointed out that still more needed to be done. “It’s a matter of this mentoring going on at the local levels and the state levels . . .,” Myrick observed, “we’ve got to encourage that, and I think the political parties, on both sides, need to do a better job of encouraging women to run.”
Sources: “The Honorable Claudine Schneider Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [January 20, 2015]; “The Honorable Elizabeth Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [March 10, 2016]; “The Honorable Patricia Scott Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [June 3, 2015]; “The Honorable Sue Myrick Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [March 14, 2016]; Dick Simpson and Betsy O’Shaughnessy, Winning Elections in the 21st Century (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016); Hannah Josephson, Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974); James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005).
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