Women in Congress: An Introduction

Jeannette Rankin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_1_Rankinportrait_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a suffragist and peace activist, was the first woman to serve in Congress.

The history of women Members of Congress began on November 7, 1916, when Montanans elected Republican candidate Jeannette Rankin to one of the state’s At-Large congressional seats, almost four years before the 19th Amendment granted women nationwide the right to vote. From the First Federal Congress in 1789 to Rankin’s victory in 1916, nearly 7,000 Representatives had served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and all were men. Sworn in on April 2, 1917, the opening day of the 65th Congress (1917–1919), Representative Rankin became the first woman Member in Congress’s 128-year history.

Back home, Montanans knew Rankin well as an advocate for woman suffrage, but official Washington and the U.S. public viewed her as a curiosity. Speculation swirled around every aspect of her life—her marital status, affinity for moving pictures, hair color, conduct, and dress–not to mention her ability to fulfill the duties of the position.1

Jeannette Rankin Speaking on the House Floor/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_2_Rankinchamberspeech_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a suffragist and peace activist and the first woman to serve in Congress, delivers her first full speech on the House Floor on August 7, 1917. Rankin addressed the need for federal intervention in copper mining during a period of unrest between labor unions and mining companies.
But, in retrospect, Rankin’s pacifist principles loomed larger than her gender. Memorably, just days after taking office, she joined a small minority of House Members to oppose a declaration of war against imperial Germany committing America to the Great War. After a failed bid for a Senate seat in 1918, she left elective office until 1940, when Montanans returned her to a second and final term in the House. Still committed to the pacifist cause, she cast the lone vote against the U.S. declaration of war on Japan on December 8, 1941, an act of conscience that effectively ended her political career.

Over time, the magnitude of these votes against war eclipsed the significance of Rankin’s other legislative agendas, ambitions, and actions during her two brief, nonconsecutive terms. Rankin introduced legislation clarifying the legal citizenship of married women, initiated consideration of federal funding for infant and maternity health programs (which became the Sheppard–Towner Act of 1921), and proposed the creation of and served on a new standing committee, the Committee on Woman Suffrage.2 Her commitment to her district complemented these legislative initiatives, and it was perhaps best displayed by her effort to intervene on the behalf of Montana copper miners in a dispute over wages.3 She also embraced her position as the most prominent woman in American politics, opening the debate on the House Floor concerning a proposed constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage in January 1918, which would eventually become the 19th Amendment in 1920.4

Jeannette Rankin at the National American Woman Suffrage Association/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_3_Rankinwomansuffrage_MHS.xml Image courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, Helena Jeannette Rankin of Montana (right) on April 2, 1917, with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, at the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later that historic day, Rankin was officially sworn into the 65th Congress (1917–1919).
These legislative successes were all the more remarkable given the impediments Rankin faced. The fleeting nature of her first term underscored the precarious grasp on political office that women experienced throughout the first half of the 20th century. Like so many early women Members, Rankin relied on the support of a male patron; in her case, her wealthy brother, Wellington, funded her campaigns. Despite her striking successes, she found it difficult to mobilize support for a wider array of women’s issues on the Hill. She lacked seniority and could not lean on a caucus of like-minded women colleagues to educate Congress on the issues and act as a voting bloc. It was in this sense that Rankin knew the frustration and marginalization that all too often awaited her successors.

Rebecca Latimer Felton Is Greeted in Washington, D.C./tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_4_Felton_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia (seated) is greeted by prominent political women in Washington, D.C. Felton, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, was appointed for a day in November 1922.
But her attempts to pass legislation, promote the rights of women, and gain higher office foreshadowed the agendas of many of the more than 300 women Members who followed her into office during the next century. Her example embodied the promise and possibilities of women in Congress, setting a high bar at which her successors aimed. Rankin was confident that many other women would follow in her footsteps. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed on the eve of her swearing-in. “But I won’t be the last.”5

This website details the diverse experiences of women in Congress since Jeannette Rankin’s historic election.6 From a complete lack of representation in Congress before 1917, women have advanced to serve as key legislators, committee chairs, and elected party leaders within Congress.

Gallery Pass Signed by Jeannette Rankin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_5_Rankingallerypass_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Jeannette Rankin's promotion of women’s rights extended to filling the visitor’s galleries with supporters on important occasions. For an expected vote on the suffrage amendment on June 6, 1917, she provided this gallery pass to Kentucky suffrage leader Alice White.
As Rankin’s career suggests, the larger story of women in Congress has not solely been one of steady progress and triumphant victories. Institutional and societal obstacles complicated women’s participation in national politics. During the century that women have served in Congress, progress has come slowly, sometimes seeming almost imperceptible, as exemplified by the subtle shift in women’s committee assignments during and after World War II. But, at other times, change has been bold and dramatic, as evidenced by the 1992 “Year of the Woman” elections and the election of Nancy Pelosi of California as Speaker of the House in 2007.

Swearing-in of Irene Baker/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_6_Baker_BakerCtr.xml Image courtesy of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Irene Baker of Tennessee, widow of Howard Baker, Sr., poses for a ceremonial picture of her swearing-in as a U.S. Representative on March 10, 1964. Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts (left) administers the oath as Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma looks on.
Several significant questions provide the framework for exploring the century of change from 1917 to 2017: How did the arrival of women Members of Congress shape the political culture and traditions of Capitol Hill? Have women changed the way Congress conducts its business, or have they modified their behavior to conform to the institution? In what ways were Congress and its Members resistant to the integration and participation of women Members? What kinds of experiences do Congresswomen have in common notwithstanding the differences in their legislative styles and political ideologies? Have the experiences of the women Senators differed from those of women Representatives and, if so, what might account for these differences? These questions consider the range of social, cultural, and institutional experiences that constitute the collective history of women in Congress.

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1James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005): 133–136; “First Congresswoman Makes Debut Here,” 4 June 1917, Baltimore Sun: 12; “Miss Rankin Raised Pay of New Zealand Women,” 26 February 1917, New York Tribune: 7; “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair,” 4 March 1917, Washington Post: E3; “No Smile from Miss Rankin,” 14 October 1917, Washington Post: S4.

2H.R. 12334 was designed to allow women who married non-citizens to reclaim their American citizenship should the marriage dissolve. The Sheppard–Towner Act (42 Stat. 224) provided federal funding for infant and maternity health programs. Rankin introduced the legislation in 1918 and it became law in 1921. Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, U.S. House of Representatives, Relative to Citizenship of American Women Married to Foreigners, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 December 1917); Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992): 497–498. For information on the establishment and member rosters of the Committee on Woman Suffrage, see David Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789–1946, Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002): 942–943.

3Lopach and Luckowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman: 155–164.

4Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 771–772.

5Cited in Winifred Mallon, “An Impression of Jeannette Rankin,” 31 March 1917, The Suffragist: n.p.

6The closing date for this essay is January 2, 2017, at the end of the 114th Congress. Facts and figures are accurate through that date.