On June 1, 1917, Jeannette Rankin penned a letter to her Montana constituents articulating her frustration with some recent media coverage. “No doubt you have read in the papers about my ‘red hair’ and ‘sending the fathers to war’ and other inventions of the eastern press. I wish you were here to see Congress working and to know the true facts,” she wrote. After all, she didn’t have red hair and she voted against American intervention in World War I.
In the same letter, Rankin noted that “In spite of the fact that women all over the country seem to claim me as their special representative, my first service shall always be to you folks at home.” As the first woman in Congress, Rankin played the larger role as surrogate Representative to women everywhere. But the constant attention on her looks—alongside the botched coverage of her legislative record—by an almost uniformly male press corps had the potential to influence or even damage Rankin’s reputation back home.
Today, House Members can engage with their constituents instantaneously using social media. In 1917, however, most Americans—especially in rural Montana—relied on local papers and national wire services for their news. Even the most routine story about Rankin became a possible headline. But regardless of whether it was front-page news, press coverage of Rankin—as a woman (an unwed woman at that), as a trailblazer, as a legislator—remained bogged down in the gendered norms of the early 20th century in which style overshadowed substance.
Nowadays, such treatment is usually reserved for movie stars, models, and members of royal families. But in 1916 the prospect of electing a woman to what had been, for more than a century, the all-male club called Congress, proved a compelling and irresistible storyline for the press. With Rankin—as they would do with several generations of women who followed her into Congress—reporters focused on her appearance.
Contemporary press accounts played endless rounds of the game Guess Who. Were her locks light brown, sandy, or red? (Her hair color was a favorite topic.) Was she tall or small? What did she wear and did she make her own hats? Was she “a severely-gowned woman with spectacles, straight combed hair, stiff collars and spats”?
This treatment even preceded her victory. A New York Times article in October 1916 reported on the upcoming election and the possibility of Rankin’s success: “If she is elected she will improve the body aesthetically for she is said to be ‘tall with a wealth of red hair.’ . . . Nothing is more beautiful than red hair,” the Times opined.
In a follow-up article right after the election, Rankin reflected on her history-making win. “I knew the women would stand by me. . . . I am deeply conscious of the responsibility, and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to be the first woman to sit in Congress,” she told the New York Times. “I will not only represent the women of Montana, but also the women of the country, and I have plenty of work cut out for me.” It was a monumental occasion, the first woman elected to national office outlining her agenda. The reporter, however, had to add that “Miss Rankin is small, slight, with light brown hair.”
On November 19, the Times ran another article on Rankin authored by a Montana professor, Dr. Louis Levine. The impact of Rankin’s election was not lost on Levine, but he insisted on describing her appearance for inquiring readers. “Miss Rankin is tall and slender, with frank hazel eyes, sandy hair, and an energetic mouth. One cannot help being impressed with her earnestness.”
As Opening Day of the new Congress approached, the Washington Post described Rankin as “a woman who is thoroughly feminine—from her charming coiffed swirl of chestnut hair to the small, high and distinctively French heels.” The article ran under the headline: “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.”
Focusing on Rankin’s appearance and her femininity certainly influenced the country’s perception of her. When she arrived in Washington, people knew her more as a dressmaker and pie baker than a politician.
During her time in the House, Rankin perpetually fought this patronizing double standard. The press held fast to stereotypes of women. It knew how to report on Congressmen. But in 1917, journalists seemed at a loss on how to cover Rankin as a Congresswoman.
The question remains why they obsessed over her appearance. Was it to undercut her effectiveness as a legislator, delegitimizing her election before she ever took the Oath of Office? Did the press emphasize Rankin’s “real girl” personality as a way to make her appear less threatening in an institution that had been dominated by men since 1789? Or did they simply not know better?
In a December 1916 editorial titled “Here’s the Answer to Man Who Said Vote Would Unsex Women,” the San Francisco Chronicle imagined how suffragists would respond to claims by the psychologist Dr. Max G. Schlapp that winning the right to vote had resulted in America “getting fewer and fewer womanly women” with “none of the womanly emotions, none of the womanly sympathies”:
Suffrage leaders rejoice at the opportunity which the election of Miss Jeannette Rankin to Congress has given them to say, “All wrong, professor, all wrong!” They point to the Montana woman and say:
Probably she is more interested in children than in anything else. She is charmingly effeminate and sympathetic. She makes her own hats. She can sew. She can darn. She can cook—for a fifty-man logging crew, if need be—without mussing her bonny brown hair. She dresses prettily and has a graceful carriage. A womanly woman, with womanly ambitions.
HATS OFF to “the LADY FROM MONTANA!”
In this exchange, Rankin was everything expected of a woman in the early 20th century. But what many in both the press and in public life failed to appreciate was that those “womanly ambitions” of hers and her supporters had long been political ambitions. Rankin and the suffragists worked to make sure substance won out over style.
Regardless of her hair color or her ability to make her own clothes, Jeannette Rankin made an instant impression on the House of Representatives. In her first month she faced a tough vote on going to war with Germany. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she told the House. “I vote no.”
Thankfully, history remembers her words and actions more than the color of her hair.
Sources: Letter, Jeannette Rankin Collection, 1 June 1917, Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana; New York Times, 13 October, 11 November, 12 November, 19 November 1916; Indianapolis Star, 19 November 1916; San Francisco Chronicle, 10 December 1916; Washington Post, 4 March 1917.
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