America’s First Congresswoman Visits Butte

This year as we celebrate the 19th amendment, providing women equal voting rights, we’re highlighting collections relating to the suffrage movement and women in politics. Immediately came to my mind a donation the Butte Archives received in 2017 of a speech given by Jeannette Rankin at the Columbia Gardens on August 18, 1917. The speech is typed on the reverse side of Butte’s Thornton Hotel stationary and includes handwritten edits.

In Montana, women won the right to vote in 1914, six years before the 19th amendment was adopted. Two years later, in 1916, Jeannette Rankin, became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Rankin advocated for women’s rights and was instrumental in initiating legislation that would become the 19th amendment. She was also the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II.

Just months after voting against entry into the WWI, Rankin visits Butte, Montana, and delivers this speech to a crowd of 6,000 at the Columbia Gardens. In this speech, she discusses her suffrage campaign and states, “I have hesitated to leave Congress for a moment, for when I leave Congress al the women members of Congress leave.”

Rankin’s visit to Butte coincides with political turmoil that had been building in the city for five years. In 1912, the dominant Anaconda Company established the rustling card system, in which men who wanted to work in the mines had to apply and could be deemed unfit to work for reasons determined by the Company. The rustling card would become a significant factor in an eruption of violence in 1914 and the Anaconda Company becoming an open shop, where it no longer recognized union employees.  Rankin refers to this in her speech calling the system, “a blacklist on a national scale.”

In June of 1917, 168 miners die in the Granite Mountain Mine disaster, resulting in wildcat strikes and the spontaneous organization of the Metal Mine Workers’ Union, demanding higher wages, safer working conditions, and an end to the rustling card system. In July of 1917, IWW organizer of Frank Little arrives in Butte and on August 1 is lynched by masked vigilantes. By August 11, federal troops arrive in Butte to quell the unrest. 

It is during this unrest that Jeannette Rankin addresses the Metal Mine Workers’ Union at the Columbia Gardens. She supports the miners in their demands of higher wages and safe working conditions; she supports the abolishment of the rustling card system. She states, “I have no patience for the utterances of Frank Little, but I have the greatest contempt for the action that permitted the foul and cowardly murder of Frank Little.”

Although she voted against entry into WWI, she concludes her speech by stating “the greatest, most liberty loving nation in the world is engaged in war…We must all put our shoulder to the wheel and strive to make a greater and fuller democracy…I pledge you my word that I shall always do my utmost to better your condition, but I earnestly appeal to you to strive to bring about a peaceful solution of existing troubles.” 

MC1075, Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives

~Aubrey


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