The calm, cool portrait of the woman who broke ground

The calm, cool portrait of the woman who broke ground

The portrait of the first female member of Congress, suffragist and peace activist Jeannette Rankin, appropriately captures her standing outside the House chamber before entering it for the first time.

In the painting, which hangs near a third-floor elevator bank not far from the House’s visitors and press galleries, Rankin wears a modest, floor-length navy-blue dress with long sleeves and white cuffs. 

Her face is expressionless and she is neither smiling nor grimacing. Her eyes look relaxed and her gaze is unassuming. It is difficult to discern what Rankin is pondering beneath her calm, demure demeanor, which belies the historic nature of her entrance onto the House floor. 

Elected to represent Montana three years before women received the right to vote, Rankin served two terms, the first from 1917 to 1919, and then again from 1941 to 1943. Her legacy was absent from the House until 2005, when curators unveiled the portrait painted by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist Sharon Sprung. 

While piecing together an image of a long-ago member can be a feat, extensive newspaper articles describing how Rankin looked and the clothes she wore eased the task, House Curator Farar Elliott said. 

“Right off the bat, she was treated differently than any other member of Congress, and her physical appearance was more widely covered than the substance of what she said,” she noted.

Such accounts describe Rankin as a “mature bride,” Elliott said, “not like a scruffy, scrappy activist.” 

Rankin was known for championing unpopular positions, such as opposing the U.S.’s entry into both World Wars I and II. But Sprung’s painting depicts Rankin as calm, a characteristic that made her attractive and approachable to her colleagues, Elliott said. 

Rankin’s female contemporaries customarily wore hats indoors, but according to House tradition, lawmakers took off their hats in the chamber. In the portrait Rankin sports a dark, wide-brimmed felt hat with a small pink flower, reflecting debates on how she should dress and be treated, Elliott said. 

When crafting the portrait, Elliott obtained the original Washington Post front-page paper that Rankin holds. Rankin’s swearing-in got a top headline, second only to an article about President Woodrow Wilson calling an emergency congressional session to debate the U.S. entering World War I. 

Curators therefore chose to depict Rankin holding the Post close to her because “we wanted to show her as a person who broke barriers, and the newspaper reflects the public announcement of a new way of democracy,” Elliott said.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) worked tirelessly for Rankin’s portrait to be commissioned and sees it as part of a larger mission to honor “the huge segments of American history” that are missing from the Capitol collection.

“We were ultimately victorious in beginning to raise consciousness here in the Capitol about the fullness of American life and the necessity of reflecting it here,” Kaptur said. “Her portrait is a foundation in that effort, but it is only the beginning.”