By Martin Kidston
When the polls close on Election Day and the tally comes in, there’s a chance that a woman will be elected president of the United States for the first time in the nation’s history.
There’s also a chance that Montana will send its second woman to serve in the U.S. Congress – a feat that was accomplished for the first time on this day 100 years ago.
On Nov. 7, 1916, Montana voters – including Montana women for the first time – sent Jeannette Rankin to the halls of the nation’s Capitol. The social justice advocate won by what qualified as a landslide victory, garnering more than 7,000 votes to become the first woman elected to Congress.
The state’s population at the time was just 469,000 people, less than half of what it is today.
“It’s important to have women in politics, especially in political power, to balance men being in political power,” said Tessa Veto, a self-described feminist and store manager at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center. “Not that one is any better than the other, but we all do better when we do it together.”
Rankin, a Missoula native, announced her candidacy as a Republican in the summer of 1916. Her campaign manager, Belle Fligelman, retired from the Montana Progressive to send out penny postcards and run the day’s version of a phone campaign.
That year, the ballot was full of choices, including incumbent Democrat John Evans, two Socialists, one other Democrat and another Republican. The state had two at-large seats at the time, and Evans and Rankin won them.
At Rankin’s namesake peace center in downtown Missoula on the eve of Election Day, the organization’s executive director, Betsy Mulligan-Dague, considered the congresswoman’s legacy and what’s at stake on Tuesday.
Hillary Clinton could become the first woman elected to the White House, while Denise Juneau, if victorious, would become just the second Montana woman voted into Congress. Regardless of how it all pans out, the races have gained attention for more than one reason.
“Rankin would say it’s about damned time,” said Mulligan-Dague. “She’d be disappointed it has taken us this long. She felt like she was opening doors and, in a sense, she was. She’d also be proud. This is possible because of her breaking the ice, so to speak.”
Back in 1916, Rankin ran and won on the rise of women’s suffrage, though it was peace that would become her legacy. In 1917, she voted against the nation’s entry into World War I. In doing so, she emerged as a spokesperson for veterans’ rights. She also introduced the first GI Bill to Congress.
Rankin’s vote against war wasn’t necessarily a popular one.
“She had a lot of flack from both her family and friends, as well as the women’s suffrage movement, to vote for war,” said Mulligan-Dague. “They wanted her to appear strong and vote like a man for fear she’d set suffrage back.”
While there are many lessons in Rankin’s courage, Mulligan-Dague finds the same value lacking in today’s national politics. Approval of Congress and its performance stood at just 20 percent in September, according to a Gallup poll – something Mulligan-Dague attributes to a lack of conviction.
“I can imagine it took an awful lot of courage for Rankin to stand up and vote for what she felt was right, despite knowing everyone was going to disagree with that decision,” she said. “When you think about today’s politicians, that’s a challenge. I wish that everyone would have that same level of conviction to stand up for what they know to be right.”
Though Rankin was a Republican, her platform read more like a modern Montana progressive. She stood for peace, women’s rights, labor rights, child labor laws and immigrant justice.
Boil it down and Rankin stood for human rights, according to Nancy de Pastino, the regional manager of Moms Demand Action. These days, she said, women are finding their voice and fighting for change amid a shifting political landscape.
“A lot of women are finding their activist roles, and in that, more women are running for office,” said de Pastino. “To have a woman serving in the top office in the land is going to make a huge difference, and a huge difference in how girls feel about themselves and how they see themselves.”
Veto also believes with more women serving in office, the changes Rankin began fighting for 100 years ago will accelerate. They may yet find their place in modern society.
“Any time you want to make meaningful change, it has to be slow to give it time to grip the soil,” said Veto. “I’d like to see us move in those directions even faster, more out of a selfish need for a better world. It’s the slow, steady march toward justice.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org