Invasion from Montana

Kate Walbert

April 06, 1993|By Kate Walbert

THE year of the woman began not in 1992, as we have been led to believe, but in April 1917, 76 years ago, when Jeannette Rankin walked into the House of Representatives as the first woman to enter Congress.

On Nov. 7, 1916, Montana elected Rankin, 36 and unmarried, to the House by a plurality of 7,567 votes. At the time, only 12 of the 48 states granted women the right to vote.

On her election, pundits raged over the new American Revolution and fanned rumors about her looks and wardrobe.

It was said that "the lady from Montana" packed a .44 caliber six-shooter and trimmed her skirts with chaps fur. The press called her a "slip of a girl" and wrote that she was out of her mind to step into a body made up of 434 men. She received countless marriage proposals. A toothpaste company offered her $5,000 for a photograph of her teeth.

A month before Rankin took her place in Washington, a woman journalist for the Evening Mail of New York wrote, "I am glad glad glad even to pollyannaism that Jeannette is not 'freakish' or 'mannish' or 'standoffish' or 'shrewish' or of any type likely to antagonize the company of gentlemen whose realm has hitherto been uninvaded by petticoats."

The invasion occurred peacefully enough. Rankin received a standing ovation as she entered the House carrying a bouquet of yellow and purple flowers given to her that morning at a suffrage rally. It was reported she wore a dark blue suit and that she walked well and unselfconsciously.

Everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the new representative, born on a ranch, had not ridden in on a horse.

What Rankin remembered best from that day was a white-haired gentleman from Michigan, a seasoned representative, whom she felt she could sit next to without accusation of flirting. She also recalled the abundance of fancy brass spittoons and the lack of bathrooms for women.

When asked how she withstood being the first woman in Congress, Rankin spoke of operating her father's sawmill, of sewing up a horse torn by barbed wire. On the frontier, she said, there was no such thing as inequality.

"I can't stand to be a worm," she would say when charged with overstepping the boundaries of ladylike behavior.

Rankin served in the House from 1917-1919 and from 1941-1943, and continued to work as a lobbyist and peace activist until her death in 1973.

Yet hers is largely a forgotten name, one of the many lost women that make up the faded time line of women in politics. Perhaps in this way she most resembles the hundreds of women -- women of the suffrage, labor and peace movements -- whose footsteps, long erased, braved the path the congressional newcomers walk today.

The anniversary of Rankin's triumphant entrance into the House seems a good moment to abandon the demeaning singular -- the year of the woman -- and to recognize that our newly elected women leaders are part of a process Rankin started three-quarters of a century ago.

It's a process that has moved too slowly, but it's a process all the same.

Kate Walbert is writing a one-woman play based on the life of Jeannette Rankin.

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