“When Miss Rankin came forward to speak, the air became electric ... Young, attractive, energetic and flowing with friendliness and reason, Jeannette Rankin commanded attention as soon as she spoke. She wore a gold-colored velvet suit, and the Lewistown editor said she looked like a young panther ready to spring ... ”
— Belle Fligelman Winestine,
Montana suffrage worker, 1914
Jeannette Rankin’s campaign for women’s suffrage in Montana finally succeeded Nov. 3, 1914, but it had taken several decades and many women — and men — to get there.
Since territorial days, Montana women had limited voting privileges, including in school elections, but full suffrage was not seriously taken up until the new state’s constitutional convention in 1889. Billings pioneer Perry McAdow was among delegates who advocated, unsuccessfully, to put suffrage in the new constitution, according to “Montana: A History of Two Centuries,” by Michael P. Malone, Richard B. Roeder and William L. Lang.
Prominent Montana women continued to work for the cause, but lost again and again. In the Montana Legislature from 1895 through 1911, bills that would have put suffrage up for a general election vote were defeated or not even considered by legislators.
Then in 1913 with almost no opposition, legislators agreed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November 1914, when it narrowly was approved.
Why after so many defeats did Montana women finally win the right to vote?
Perhaps it was an issue whose time had come. Nine other states plus the Territory of Alaska had passed women’s suffrage before Montana and Nevada did in 1914.
If Montana men needed assurance that women wouldn’t abandon their families after earning the vote as some anti-suffragists predicted, they needed only look to Wyoming, where women had been voting for 45 years by 1914.
The Progressive movement promoting political change and social activism sweeping through the country and a backlash against the Anaconda Co.’s growing power also created fertile ground for reforms that included women’s voting rights.
At the time, Anaconda was consolidating operations in Butte and buying up mines to dominate copper markets, said Keith Edgerton, chair of the Montana State University Billings history department. The company wielded so much power it subverted democracy by getting legislators sympathetic to Anaconda elected and by buying up newspapers to control public opinion, Edgerton said.
“The Anaconda shadow hung over everything,” Edgerton said. “Suffragists could say ‘we need every vote to counter Anaconda’s power to bring about mine safety and other reforms.’ ”
Reforms passed in Montana in 1912 that set up a
direct primary system, campaign finance reform, popular election of U.S. senators and presidential primaries indicated Montana voters might be ready to give women the vote.
The growing number of homesteaders, who had flocked to Montana in droves after the Homestead Act expanded in 1909, also tended to be pro-suffrage. The new residents included a significant number of women filing homestead claims.
Suffrage success in 1914 also drew on an egalitarian atmosphere in the West.
Despite Anaconda’s power, Montana, like other western states, was less beholden to patriarchal traditions, Edgerton said.
“Out here, women had proven themselves working alongside men, and they had earned respect” that would help them gain the right to vote, said Tom Rust, MSUB associate professor of history.
While those factors laid the groundwork, the success of suffrage in 1914 also was the result of hundreds of women across the state working on a well-organized campaign led by the politically seasoned, dynamic Jeannette Rankin.
Born in to a prominent Missoula family in 1880, Rankin became active in the suffrage movement through her training and experience as a social worker in large cities outside Montana.
Hot-tempered, restless, independent and strong-willed to the point of being overbearing, Rankin also was deeply compassionate.
Frustrated by female social workers being relegated to lesser jobs in organizations helping the poor, she realized that the only way she and other women could make things better for families — including pay equity and improving public sanitation and working conditions — was to gain the vote and hold political office.
Rankin found her life’s work in the successful campaign for suffrage in Washington state in 1910, when she was recognized for her energy, hard work and adroit public speaking ability. During the next four years, she campaigned for suffrage in her home state and around the country as a field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, one of the leading suffrage groups of the day.
In 1911, Rankin gave a noteworthy speech to the Montana Legislature urging lawmakers to support suffrage. Although a suffrage bill failed that year, Rankin and other suffragists took pre-emptive action to make sure the next legislature would be friendly to their cause.
In the summer of 1912, Rankin helped set up an organization to make that happen, according to Norma Smith’s book “Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience.”
The women got the Republican, Democratic, Socialist and Progressive political parties to endorse suffrage. Then, they wrote every legislative candidate and encouraged them to vote according to their parties’ platforms, wrote James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski in their book “Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman.”
They actively campaigned against men who had opposed the vote for women in the past.
In the case of Montana state legislator James McNally, suffragists “didn’t defeat him, but they scared him enough that he voted with them when the time came,” Smith said.
Even after Democratic candidates, most of whom were pro-suffrage, won a majority of legislative seats, Rankin didn’t rest. She told suffragists to write letters to incoming legislators. She also organized a state suffrage meeting in Helena just before the Legislature opened in early 1913 to have a presence in the capital city.
The strategy worked. When a vote on a bill to place an amendment for women’s suffrage on the 1914 ballot came up early in the session, it passed by a big majority with only two men in the Senate and two in the House opposing it.
Rankin was no less ardent in the campaign for the amendment in the Montana general election, during which she proved to be a crafty, passionate campaigner.
While earlier working for suffrage in New York and Washington state in 1910, Rankin learned how to organize a grassroots campaign setting up groups in each county that oversaw precinct-level groups, tailoring appeals to local voters’ interests, Lopach and Luckowski write.
Rather than elites directing the campaign from the top down, the movement worked from the ground up to create wide support across a big state made even bigger by bad roads and poor communication.
To inspire suffragists and to lobby male voters, Rankin drove thousands of miles across Montana that summer to organize parades, speak in union halls and lobby farm women in their own kitchens. She claims to have visited at least one school in every county, asking students to get their fathers to vote for suffrage.
“Throughout the Montana suffrage campaign, Jeannette Rankin’s principal asset was her total commitment,” Lopach and Luckowski said.
One of Rankin’s advantages was her persuasive speaking style that she had honed as a street-corner lobbyist and suffrage campaigner around the country.
Rankin “had a pleasant, resonant voice that carried well without seeming loud or strained,” Smith said. “Whether the audience was six or 6,000 she seemed to be speaking to each person. She spoke simply and to the point, avoiding oratorical flourishes and impassioned phrases still in fashion. ... ”
She also took great care with her appearance, dressing in stylish outfits that usually included wide-brimmed hats. That, too, was a calculated move to counter anti-suffrgists’ claims that suffragists were unfeminine.
Although Rankin and her followers portrayed themselves as a force to clean up politics as usual, they weren’t above borrowing certain tactics from men. “Jeannette Rankin’s suffrage campaigning, never characterized by half measures, included deception, compromise and extremism,” Lopach and Luckowski said. With these tactics, Rankin demonstrated her conviction to the cause of earning the right to vote.
When Rankin knew a legislative candidate would be speaking, she made sure the audience was salted with suffrage supporters. Then, she asked the candidate to mention suffrage during his speech. When he did, the claque would applaud in what appeared to be spontaneous support.
Rankin carefully tailored the suffrage message for Montana men.
Rankin and others campaigned on the more conservative theme that women should get the vote because they would improve society, rather than that they had the natural right to vote, which was considered a more radical approach, Smith said.
“Give them all the dope you can about the influence of women on behalf of children and appeal to the higher standard of motherhood ... That’s the gush that gets the public,” Mary O’Neill, a Butte newspaper woman who was in charge of publicity for the campaign, told Rankin.
Rankin also pandered to the anti-immigration sentiment in a state in which about a quarter of its 376,053 residents were foreign-born in 1910. Giving women the vote would help counter the growing influence of immigrants, Rankin would tell native-born voters.
At the same time, suffragists courted immigrant votes, too, and, according to Smith, Rankin later regretted anti-immigration arguments that were used during the suffrage campaign.
Rankin also distanced the campaign as much as possible from the temperance movement even though prohibition long had been a key issue for many suffragists, particularly on the East Coast. Western voting campaigns learned to muffle the issue around hard-drinking male voters.
Fearing women would shut down saloons if they got the vote, liquor and gambling interests were major opponents to suffrage. The Anaconda Co., concerned about women lobbying for mine safety laws, was another. Anti-suffrage women were opposed to the amendment, too.
Although some men considered women’s suffrage a joke, others supported it with conviction. Montana state legislator C.B. Nolan spoke of how his hardworking Irish mother who supported her family deserved the vote, Smith said.
Steps toward equality
On Nov. 3, 1914, the amendment passed, 41,302 to 37,588 — fewer than 4,000 votes. Yellowstone County narrowly voted for it, but it lost in Silver Bow, the most populous county.
It wouldn’t be until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified that suffrage was extended to the rest of the country.
Although the Montana vote was a victory for many women, it excluded Native American women, who wouldn’t get the vote until the Indian Civilization Act in 1924.
Lopach and Lukowski say that Rankin’s suffrage campaign set the stage for her run for Congress in 1916, using some of the same strategies to win.
Rankin won that election, becoming not only the first woman elected to the United States Congress, but also the first woman to earn a seat on any elected body in the world.