Votes for Women
The Congresswoman from Montana
Jeannette Rankin’s status as the first woman elected to the national legislature yielded extensive press coverage across the states. This front page, above-the-fold article in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Journal Gazette with a colored illustration describes “Our First Congress-Woman” as “a grey-eyed, slender girl with the enthusiasm of a zealot, the simplicity of a child and the energy and fire of a race horse.” More substantially, the editors trace her biography, particularly her engagement with the campaign for women’s suffrage across the United States. The article ends with a prophetic quotation from Rankin: “No compromise when it is a question of principle,” an idea that guided her through two terms in Congress. Although women’s suffrage was Rankin's primary aim during her first term, her pacifism stood as one of her core values. Rankin's vote against entering World War I drew criticism from some of her allies in the suffrage movement, despite her strong support of their primary objective on the national level.
In June 1917, Rankin wrote to her constituents, reaffirming her concern for their needs. In her letter, Rankin referenced the pressure she felt to represent all women: “Women all over the country seem to claim me as their special representative.” However, Rankin foremost wanted her constituents to understand that she was working hard on their behalf, despite press coverage that seemed to indicate otherwise. The concept of “surrogate representation”—representing women far beyond the borders of Member's district or state—was attached to many early women in Congress. However, like the female electorate, Congresswomen held differing views and were not a unified group. Although they recognized the groundbreaking nature of their service, early women in Congress downplayed their gender and focused on getting the job done. The tension between fitting in and being effective was apparent in the legislative pursuits and committee assignments of early women Representatives, many of the women focused on social and domestic issues, rather than winning seats on powerful committees and crafting legislation that would have far-reaching effects.