Has Anything Changed for Female Politicians?

tags: politics, womens history

Kate Walbert is the author of a collection of short stories and four novels, among them A Short History of Women and The Sunken Cathedral, just out in paperback.


Early May and the lilacs are in bloom, the forsythias just past their prime, as Colonel E. Jacob Crull, of Roundup, Montana, climbs the front steps of a funeral establishment in Elkhart, Indiana. He carries a bottle of muriatic acid and the refrain “beaten by a woman,” a taunt he has hoped to escape by visiting his sister in their home town. But the national newspapers are filled with accounts of the arrival, in Washington, of Jeannette Rankin as a Republican representative to the House—the first woman to serve in Congress. Crull, the fifty-eight-year-old unmarried lawyer and former member of the Montana legislature whom she defeated in the primaries, believed that a spot on the 1916 Republican ticket would make the beginning of a brilliant political career in Washington. Defeat at the hands of a woman has crushed his ambition and will to live. Two boys will find him later that day, “huddled on the steps”; he is taken to a local hospital—his last words, “I’m heartbroken.”

Purveyor of truth, the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune puts the blame squarely on Rankin’s shoulders in its lede: “The sting of defeat, administered by a woman—Miss Jeannette Rankin, congresswoman from Montana—made Jacob Crull, prominent Montana politician, commit suicide.”

Rankin is born on a ranch outside Missoula, in 1880. While she is learning to ride and hunt, many of the world’s leading intellectuals are pondering the “woman question.” Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, compares the “willy-nilly disposition of the female” to a butterfly. The evolutionist Grant Allen opines that, while he would like to see a woman far more “emancipated than she herself as yet at all desires,” it’s “mathematically demonstrable” that “most women must become the mothers of at least four children or else the race must cease to exist.” The women’s-rights movement, he concludes, is sadly “pursuing a chimera.”

“Go! Go! Go!” Rankin writes in her college journal. “It makes no difference where just so you go! Go! Go!” Long before she enters Congress, she forges her commitment to issues affecting women and children, in the years following her graduation from the University of Montana. The year she receives her degree, 1902, is the same year that the visionary Jane Addams’s “Democracy and Social Ethics” is published. Visiting her brother at Harvard in 1904, Rankin witnesses the tenements and slums of a crowded city. She spends time at a settlement house in San Francisco, and then travels east to study at the New York School of Philanthropy. After her return, in 1909, she works at the Washington Children’s Home Society, in Spokane, then joins that state’s suffrage campaign, in 1910. She speaks to the Montana legislature on suffrage the following year, as a representative of the Missoula Political Equality Club, and leads the suffrage movement to success in Montana, in 1914. (Reports that she does so on horseback are largely exaggerated.) Later, she travels throughout the country as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association before landing in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist. Rankin “put the lob in lobbying,” a friend said. 

A gigantic plaster elk, sixty-two feet tall and forty-four feet long, straddles the corners of Broadway and Main Street, constructed courtesy of Butte Elks Lodge 0240 to commemorate Independence Day, 1916. The copper ore of its green patina is from the nearby mines that have made Butte the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis. It is here, a week after the Fourth of July festivities, that Rankin announces her intentions to those gathered in a local restaurant—her aim, now that suffrage has been won in Montana, is to run on the G.O.P. ticket for the House of Representatives. She is the sole woman among eight contenders for the spot; her slogan—“Let the People Know”— is a promise to hold the politicians in Washington accountable to their constituents. She also pledges to fight for eight-hour workdays for women, child-labor laws, and a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage. “Nothing else will go so far toward overcoming the prejudice against women in office and nothing would be greater aid to the feminist movement than to have the higher offices filled by women,” she says. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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