The Billings Outpost

Montana’s first, and last, woman in U.S. House

Jeannette Pickering Rankin huddled in a telephone booth while angry congressmen filed out of the House chambers, scattering angry taunts in their wake.

The previous day the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Only minutes earlier, Rep. Rankin had cast the lone vote against entry of the United States into World War II in 1941.

She defended her vote with the remark: “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.” Later, Rankin told a colleague, “Someone had to vote against war.” As the first woman elected to a national office, she felt the burden fell upon her.

She called Wellington D. Rankin, her brother back in Montana. He reported a storm of hatred sparked by her vote. Montana remains a state that is anti-war in peace time while strongly supporting any belligerency that breaks out.

Wellington should not have been surprised. His sister was a lifelong pacifist with an anti-war record. She had voted against war before.

After campaigning for women’s suffrage in New York, Washington and other states, Jeanette had returned to Montana in 1914 to stump for Montana women’s right to vote. Women, of course, could not vote in the election that would give them the same franchise granted slaves after the Civil War. But they would be able to vote in the 1916 election.

Women’s suffrage had been long delayed in Montana. The struggle for women’s right to vote began in 1889 before Montana became a state. That early battle peaked when women’s suffrage was beaten down 43 to 25 in an all-male vote of the 1889 Constitutional Convention.

Western territories vied for statehood in the post-Civil War years. Peace had returned. Railroads began to lace the West. Free land, gold and silver drew immigrants. Both parties struggled to capture new voting blocs beyond the Mississippi River.

Montana had failed twice in its bid for statehood, and the leaders of the constitutional convention trod on eggshells. Congress had spelled out what it wanted in a new state charter, and many delegates feared that women’s suffrage might provoke rejection.

Clara MacAdow had more faith in Montana men. Clara was the wife of Perry MacAdow, often called “The Gold King.” Perry had chased gold from California to Judith Gap. The fortune he founded fed speculation in land, irrigation projects and natural resources.

Perry was in the process of doubling and redoubling his fortune when he was disabled and spent the rest of his years in a wheelchair. Clara took the helm of MacAdow enterprises, chiefly a gold mine near Judith Gap.

Clara, who had been an activist in progressive causes before managing the mine, heeded the call of politics. She launched a one-woman crusade to win the vote for her gender.

Clara MacAdow, almost always referred to in Montana histories as “a very successful businesswoman from Billings,” lobbied the delegates one by one.

More than half promised to vote for suffrage. But, pressured by the leadership, several delegates backed away from the support they had promised MacAdow.

Suffrage had to wait for Jeanette Rankin, who stumped the entire state in 1914. Though only men were allowed to vote, the issue won handily.

Flush with victory in the suffrage battle, Rankin filed for Montana’s single congressional seat and returned to the campaign trail where she was a proven winner with a now familiar name. That name became a household phrase nationwide when Rankin won to become America’s first woman in Congress.

When President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war to enter World War I, editors across the nation were more interested in Rankin’s reaction than the outcome of the vote.

A reporter asked Rankin’s close friend Fiorello Laguardia if Rankin had tears in her eyes when she cast her vote. It would have made a great lead for his story.

Laguardia said, “I could not tell for the tears in my own eyes.”

Rankin left Washington at the end of her term in 1916. In the late 1930s war clouds loomed again. When a Japanese surprise attack decimated the American Navy at Pearl Harbor, President Franklyn Roosevelt called for a declaration of war.

Rankin again voted no. This time hers was the only vote against entry into World War II.

Somebody had to vote against war, she said.

Rankin, the first Montana woman elected to Congress, was the last. Montana has never elected another woman to national office. Not one.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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