National Women’s History Month

Suffragette and First Woman Elected to Congress (1880 – 1973)

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress, one of the few suffragists elected to Congress, and the only Member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II.

Rankin graduated from Montana State University in 1902 and attended the New York School of Philanthropy. After working in social work for a short time, she went back to study at the University of Washington. It was there that she joined the woman suffrage movement and helped to bring about the change in Washington State in 1910. Rankin then went on to become a professional lobbyist for the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and helped Montana women to gain the vote in 1914.

In 1916, Rankin decided to run for a House seat in Montana with the help of her reputation as a suffragist and her politically well-connected brother who financed her campaign. She came in second and won one of Montana’s seats. The frontrunner, John M. Evans, had 7,600 votes more than Rankin. However, the next closest opponent trailed her by 6,000 votes.

In the fall of 1917, she advocated for the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage. The committee reported out a constitutional amendment on woman suffrage in January 1918, and Rankin opened the very first House Floor debate on the subject, stating, “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen? How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” The resolution passed the House but died in the Senate.

President of the Alabama Suffrage Association (1875 – 1935)

Pattie Ruffner Jacobs was the president of the Alabama Suffrage Association, first president of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association, and board member of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She was heavily involved within the League of Women Voters’ board, worked with the Consumers’ Advisory Board, and was a spokesperson for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama.

After moving to Birmingham, Alabama, with her mother and marrying, Jacobs became politically active in Progressivism and began as an activist against child labor, convict leasing, and prostitution. She was also an active member of the Salvation Army and the Jefferson County Anti-Tuberculosis Association. She went on to found the Birmingham Equal Suffrage Association in 1910 and the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association in 1911. In 1913, Jacobs traveled to the National Woman Suffrage Association Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., to speak on behalf of Southern women suffragists.

In 1915, Jacobs was elected as an officer in the National Equal Suffrage Association and, with the passing of the 19th amendment just four years later, became the national secretary for the National League of Women Voters.

Suffragette, Civil Rights Activist, and Founding Member of the National Association of Colored Women (1865 – 1954)

Mary Church Terrell was a civil rights activist, journalist, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, first African-American woman in the U.S. to be appointed to the school board of a major city (D.C.), founding member of the National Association of Colored Women, and charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Terrell’s mother, Louisa Ayers, owned a hair salon in Memphis, Tennessee, and is thought to be one of the first African-American women to establish and maintain a business. With this example and the encouragement of her mother, Terrell attended Antioch College Model School in Ohio in 1870 at the age of seven.

She went on to attend college at Oberlin College, majoring in Classics and was one of the first African-American women to attend the institution. In 1884, she earned her bachelor’s degree on the “gentleman’s path”, which was a full four years of study compared to the two years for women. Terrell earned her master’s degree in Education from Oberlin in 1888.

Terrell moved to Washington, D.C., to teach in the Latin Department at the M Street School. After teaching for a few years, she studied in Europe and became fluent in French, German, and Italian. In 1891, she became the first African-American woman to be offered a registrarship. Terrell declined the position from Oberlin College and started focusing on social activism.

On February 18, 1898, she gave an address titled “The Progress of Colored Women” at the National American Woman Suffrage Association biennial session in Washington, D.C., which called for the Association to fight for the lives of African-American women. The speech was so well received that Terrell became an unofficial ambassador for the Association. She went on to give more speeches, including “In Union There is Strength” and “What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the U.S.” and write a book titled A Colored Woman in a White World.

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