On the first day of February 1911, a determined woman named Jeannette Rankin stood before the Montana State Legislature and told the story of the long half-century battle for women’s suffrage. Wyoming Territory came first, giving women the right to vote in 1889. Colorado Territory was next, extending the vote to women in 1893. By the time Rankin delivered her speech to Montanans, Utah, Idaho and Washington had all done the same.
Facing a chamber of white male Montanans empowered to make decisions for everyone else in the state, she framed her argument as part of the historical fight for American independence. “We are asking for the same principle for which men gladly gave their lives in the revolutionary war,” Rankin said. “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”
Two years later, an all-male legislature conceded that Rankin was right and voted to amend the Montana Constitution to give women access to the ballot. A popular vote followed in 1914, with 53 percent of men voting to extend the franchise to women. Not one to waste time, Rankin ran for federal office at the first opportunity, and, in 1916, she became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, placing Montana at the forefront of the fight for women’s equality.
Exactly a century has passed since the first woman cast a vote in Montana. Montanans elected a female governor in 2000, and in the 2013 state legislative session, a record 28 percent of lawmakers were women. For Montana native and Democrat Diane Sands, however, this is not enough.
“Suffrage is a process, not an endpoint,” she said, shortly after announcing her decision to run for Montana Senate last fall. “The point of suffrage is to have a voice in government, which is not just the granting of the vote.”
Throughout her career as a political consultant, campaigner and fundraiser, Sands has fought for equal rights. In 1996, she was elected to the Montana House of Representatives as the first openly gay legislator in Montana history. She went on to serve four sessions in the House.
Citing research from the Center for Women in American Politics, Sands argues the fight to ensure that women are fully represented in government is as important today as it was 100 years ago. Currently, women hold 24 percent of seats in state legislatures across the country, 20 percent of seats in the U.S. Senate and 18.5 percent of seats in the U.S. House.
Sands points out that a view of the numbers through a partisan lens is even more sobering. In the Republican Party, to which Jeannette Rankin belonged, women hold just 8.6 percent of the seats in state legislatures across the country, 4 percent of seats in the U.S. Senate and 4.3 percent of the seats in the U.S. House. In the Montana Legislature, 47 percent of the Democratic delegation is women compared to 14 percent of Republicans, the majority party in both chambers.
On June 3, Sands came one step closer to improving these numbers by easily beating her male opponent in the Democratic primary to set up a general election contest with Republican Dick Haines, a former Missoula city councilor.
A few weeks later, Sands stood in front of a small memorial at Jeannette Rankin Park, near the University of Montana. The park was dedicated 34 years ago on March 4, on the day that would have been Rankin’s 100th birthday. The park has been poorly tended since then; the paving stones that lead to the center of the lawn are overgrown with weeds, and the fountain at the end of the path hasn’t worked for years.
The park’s dilapidated condition seemed to reflect Sands’ opinion of the present state of women in politics. “At the current pace, it will take more than 300 years to reach gender equity in our state legislature,” she said. “And there have been no women elected to federal office from Montana since Rankin.”
The low-hanging political fruit has already been picked, Sands believes, and the battle for equal representation in government will be tougher than the battle for the vote. It’s not about solving just one problem; it’s a fight to establish a kind of pipeline that encourages women to assume leadership roles in their careers and in their community. They can then receive recognition and support, run for office and, ultimately, win. The work to establish that pipeline involves fighting for equal pay, equal responsibility, and equal recognition, she said.
Sands paced around the cracked cement pad of the abandoned fountain, shaking her head. “There used to be lovely flowerbeds here,” she said. “And look at all the damn dandelions in the path.” She placed her hands on her hips.
“We have to do something about this.”
Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Missoula.