April 6, 2020

“Opposition makes me stronger for you:” The interconnected lives of Jeannette and Wellington D. Rankin

By Barrett Codieck

Jeannette and Wellington Rankin, circa 1914. Catalog #944-477. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Photograph Archives.

Montana history enthusiasts need no introduction to Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Over a dozen published biographies celebrate, mythologize, debunk, and simply seek to explain “Miss Jeannette.” Weaving in and out of every account of Jeannette’s life is the sometimes-enigmatic figure of her brother Wellington (1884-1966). No biographer can dismiss Wellington’s importance to his sister’s story, but the nature of the siblings’ relationship remains difficult to define. The Montana Historical Society Research Center holds newly expanded collections of the personal papers of both Rankins, offering new insights into these complex historical figures.

The Rankin family [date]: (L-R) Wellington, Harriet, John, Olive, Jeannette, and Philena. Catalog #Lot 039 B1F05.01. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Photograph Archives.

Besides the ties of family, two threads kept the Rankins connected throughout their lives: politics and money. Jeannette’s success in both of her elections were the result of favorable political circumstances and her great talent for organizing and campaigning in the field. However, both campaigns might never have happened without Wellington as campaign manager and financier. Once in office, Jeannette continued to seek Wellington’s political advice. Wellington was not shy to provide it, as he was dismayed by Jeannette’s antiwar votes and opposition to the all-powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

Wellington’s opposition to Jeannette’s actions was not necessarily ideological, although the two siblings would drift in very different ideological directions over the years. Rather, Wellington seemed galled by his sister’s willingness to sacrifice her electability by embracing unpopular and politically dangerous positions. Given that Wellington would wage and lose eight campaigns for public office between 1914 and 1952, it is perhaps understandable that he considered electability to be a precious resource.

“I shall…vote my conviction regardless of future of political life.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, April 22, 1917. Jeannette Rankin papers, MC 147, box 1, folder 1, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives. (Hereafter JR papers)
“let your conviction be right and not sickly.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, April 22, 1917. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.
“Grieved at vote but opposition makes me stronger for you.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, April 28, 1917. In this case Wellington was partly misinformed, Jeannette had voted for a competing conscription bill instead of President Wilson’s. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.
“Mining companies no possible way to blame.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, June 20, 1917. Wellington correctly predicted Jeannette’s response to the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine Disaster of 1917 and tried in vain to limit the political damage of opposing the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.

As critical as Wellington could be in private correspondence, in public he always maintained a united front with his sister. Even after Jeannette’s vote against entry into the Second World War made her politically toxic in Montana, Wellington refused to publicly criticize her during his own 1942 Senate run. Repaying loyalty with loyalty, during each of Wellington’s doomed campaigns Jeannette reached out to progressive and labor voters alienated by her brother’s increasing conservatism.

“My brother has been an active friend of labor always.” Jeannette Rankin to Edward Keating (editor of the newspaper Labor), June 11, 1934. Wellington D. Rankin papers, box 26, folder 4, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives. (Hereafter WR papers)

Money defined more than the Rankins’ political relationship, as Jeannette’s sources of income were often sporadic and unreliable while Wellington amassed an enormous fortune from his law practice, ranching empire, and business interests. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Jeannette relied upon Wellington’s financial support to care for their ailing mother and to afford expensive trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. At the same time, she adopted an idiosyncratic and anti-materialistic personal lifestyle and her politics became increasingly anti-capitalistic. This uncomfortable dynamic sometimes strained the siblings’ relationship, but again never broke their fundamental family loyalty.

“You were very good to send me the checks. For anyone without a salary I’m getting on fine.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, January 24, 1940. WR papers box 2, folder 9.
“I feel very badly over all the horrid things I said…I really do appreciate all you have done…to make it possible for me to go to Europe.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, July 25, 1937. WR papers box 2, folder 9.

Jeannette and Wellington’s relationship was far from that of typical siblings, yet its complex dynamics were driven by a relatable mix of love, loyalty, resentment, rivalry, and extreme familiarity common to all families. These archival records complement our understanding of the past and ultimately humanizes its very human subjects.

Explore the full finding aids to the Jeannette Rankin and Wellington D. Rankin papers.