In 1916, Montana elected Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist and pacifist, to the House of Representatives as the first-ever congresswoman. Her home state was one of only about a dozen at the time that permitted women to cast a ballot. The activists believed that winning the right to vote would begin the dismantling of a system that hadnt the courage to view them even as second-class citizens.
Some Congressmen were less tactful. “The women of this smart Capital are beautiful,” said Ohio Democrat Rep. Stanley Bowdle, “indeed, their beauty is positively disturbing to business, but they are not interested in politics…” Bowdle, whose “lovely, loyal wife” and “beautiful, devoted sister” had pleaded the case for suffrage, conducted his own social experiment to reach this judgment. He counted the number of women he observed reading newspapers on street cars over several days and found the number lacking.
Fighting for equality made suffragists unpopular. Their demands were often viewed as heretical, and their character suspect. “[The suffragists] knew the case against them was that that they were abnormal women,” says Page Harrington, executive director of the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C.
Not only did suffragists defy the conventions of gender, they did so during World War I. This act, Harrington says, was viewed as treasonous in some quarters. Activists challenged President Woodrow Wilson on the hypocrisy of the nation’s war efforts against fascism abroad when women could not vote at home.
The compelling argument found its way into political cartoons, onto signs held by activists, and even into the mouth of at least one congressman. Rep. Philip Campbell, a Kansas Republican, prodded his fellow lawmakers: “Mr. Speaker, the women who furnish the men to fight the battles should have something to say as to what conditions justify the battles to be fought.”
The movement reorganized, focusing on aggressive lobbying and grassroots political organizing to hold elected officials publicly accountable for their views. Activists intensified their picketing and marches, with some enduring well-publicized arrests, hunger strikes and forced feeding. In 1916, Montana elected Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist and pacifist, to the House of Representatives as the first-ever congresswoman. Her home state was one of only about a dozen at the time that permitted women to cast a ballot.
Yet the gains didn’t materialize as some might have imagined. While women were essential to the passage of important social welfare legislation in the 1920s, and to the shape and tenor of the New Deal government, women never voted as a bloc and thus became a diminished threat at the polls. Read more…