Elected 100 years ago, first woman in Congress had Ga. ties

First woman elected to Congress 100 years agoa

ATHENS, Ga. -- 2016 marks an important anniversary of a major political milestone.  A hundred years ago, the first woman was elected to Congress – and Jeannette Rankin spent much of her life in Georgia. 

It's a milestone mostly overlooked as Hillary Clinton makes a historic run for the presidency one hundred years later.  But in the offices of an Athens-based foundation that bears Rankin's name, the inspiration behind the work is unmistakable.

"Every morning, I look at her picture and say, 'Hey Jeanette!  We’re going to make some money for you today. We’re going to give out some scholarships,'" laughed Karen Sterk, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund, which grants college scholarships to women age 35 and over. 

As inspirations go, Jeannette Rankin has staying power. She got elected to Congress a hundred years ago from Montana. It was four years before women won the right to vote nationwide; Montana and a few other western states had already granted women the vote. 

"She was a really good orator," Sterk said, explaining her appeal to voters.  "She was charming but not girly. She knew what she was talking about. And her moment came."

Her first vote upon taking the oath of office was whether to enter World War I.  Rankin voted against it. The vote helped seal Jeannette Rankin’s fate as an apparent one-term congresswoman. 

But she stayed in politics – lobbying for women and children’s issues – and buying a now-historic house in Watkinsville, near Athens, which she used as a base for the rest of her life.   She told friends it was easier to commute to Washington DC from Georgia than it was from Montana. 

Two decades passed.  She ran for Congress again, from Montana. She won again, and re-took her seat in 1941.  In December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Jeannette Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war against Japan.  Once again, the vote against war cost Rankin her seat in Congress.

"She paid dearly for voting that way. But clearly she’s a woman of her convictions. She stood by them," Sterk said.

Nan and Britt Pendergrast of Atlanta were Vietnam era peace activists.  They became confidants of Jeannette Rankin – whose antiwar votes inspired the Pendergrasts to activism.

"I never dreamed then that I would have the rare privilege of meeting her," Nan Pendergrast said Thursday.  The Pendergrasts say they frequently hosted Rankin at their home in Buckhead when she visited from Watkinsville.

"She pointed out very succinctly, I think, that solving international problems had never really been solved by killing young men," Mrs. Pendergrast said. 

One hundred years after becoming the first woman in Congress,, a hundred women will get scholarships from the Athens foundation named for Jeannette Rankin.

"Social justice was her life," Sterk said.  "So really, what she did lives on."

(© 2016 WXIA)


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