Recently, while researching a totally unrelated topic in the Richmond Times Dispatch, I stumbled upon an intriguing article from Dec. 2, 1928 titled, “Ninth Woman in Congress Believes Men Spendthrifts,” about New York Congresswoman, Ruth Pratt.
In the article, Pratt called men “the spenders, the happy-go-luckies, the sentimentalists, the ‘bunk artists.’” She went on to say that, “Men do not like strong and brainy women. They prefer them helpless.” While in Washington, she hoped to put her thrifty-mindedness and managerial skill to good use. She also mentioned her relief at not being the sole woman in Congress—as she entered office in 1928, she shared the sorority of seven fellow Congresswomen.
But the first woman to win a seat in the US Congress actually came 12 years before Pratt. Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected in November 1916, well before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Being the first and only woman in Congress inspired much newspaper commentary–both critical and complimentary–not only across the country, but in Virginia’s press as well..
The Nov. 15, 1916 issue of Presbyterian of the South announced her election with little fanfare—as a matter of fact, the publication didn’t even take the time to learn which party she belonged to, but it did comment that she’d “feel pretty lonesome in Washington.”
The Highland Recorder, to its credit, not only knew what party she belonged to, but also printed a large photo of America’s “First Congresswoman” on the front page of its Nov. 24, 1916 issue:
Commenting on Rankin’s record, the author of this the Richmond Times Dispatch article, published August 11, 1917, obviously had little confidence in her abilities. “Mrs. Jeannette Rankin’s record in Congress thus far,” reported the RTD, “does not very much encourage the idea of filling men’s places in that body with women.”
Her vote against going to war—she was one of fifty Representatives to do so—was harshly criticized by the RTD, as was her speech supporting the Industrial Workers of the World and condemning the lynching of Frank Little:
Along with advocating for peace, she also supported equal pay for women and safer working conditions for miners. In 1918, Rankin ran for US Senate but finished third in the general election much to the Richmond Times Dispatch’s relief. With the world reeling from war and “serious work to be done,” the “practical joke on the country” of having a woman in office was finally over:
Rankin returned to Congress in 1941, representing Montana’s 1st congressional district.
While Montana can boast of electing the first Congresswoman in US history, Virginia would not elect its first until 1992, when Leslie Byrne won Virginia’s 11th congressional district. The historical election also included a victory for Senator Robert C. Scott, the first African American legislator from Virginia since 1891.
As of January 2019, there are 25 women serving on the United States Senate and 102 women in the U.S. House of Representatives. If only the author of that “practical joke” article from the RTD could see the House and Senate now.