Rankin post office receives U.S. Senate’s blessing

Jeannette Rankin and Charlie Russell are linked again.

The U.S. Senate passed by unanimous consent a bipartisan bill last week naming the Missoula post office on West Kent Avenue in honor of Rankin (1880-1973), the peace-preaching pioneer and suffragist from Missoula who became America’s first Congresswoman.

The legislation, introduced last March in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and in the U.S. House by Rep. Greg Gianforte, was unanimously passed in the House on Oct. 16. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the delegation’s lone Democrat, joined in late October as a co-sponsor of Daines’ bill. 

It cleared its biggest hurdle in the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee on Nov. 7, the 103rd anniversary of Rankin’s election into the Senate. The act waits on President Donald Trump’s desk to be signed into law.

Only one other federal post office in Montana bears the name of a famous Montanan. Even before it was built in 1974, the Charles M. Russell Station on 9th Avenue in Great Falls was christened for the western artist who made his home in that city.

Each state is entitled to furnish two statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. Montana chose Russell to represent it in 1959 and Rankin in 1985.

An identical statue of Rankin stands on a Grand Staircase landing in the State Capitol in Helena. Russell’s 24½-foot long oil painting “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole” graces the back wall of the House of Representative chamber nearby.

The Montana lives of Russell (1864-1926) and Rankin (1880-1973) overlapped, though it’s unclear how often their paths crossed.

Russell came to Montana to work on a sheep ranch in the Judith Basin in 1880, the year Rankin was born on her family’s Grant Creek ranch near Missoula.

Russell’s art career was at its zenith in 1914 when Rankin led a movement that attained women in Montana the right to vote. Two years later, running on the Republican ticket, Rankin became what is believed to be the first female in the world to be elected to a national legislative body when Montana sent her to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1940, she was again elected to the U.S. House and served one term.

Both Daines and Gianforte, in introducing their respective bills, called Rankin a trailblazer for women’s rights.

She was a leader for all Montanans, Daines said last week in a press release.

“I’m glad to see our bipartisan bill honoring her legacy head to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law,” he said.

Gianforte said Rankin is a national icon, and the bill to name a post office honors her “lasting contributions to our country.” 

“One hundred years ago, Jeannette Rankin completed her first term as the first woman elected to Congress,” Tester said in the joint statement. “In those two short years she started to build a legacy that continues to inspire folks across the country, and as our bill heads to the President’s desk, we should do our best to embody the values she stood for: equality, civil rights, and peace.”

James Boxrud of Denver, communications director for the U.S. Postal Service in Montana, said several post office naming bills sit on Trump’s desk, five of them from Colorado alone. Last year Trump signed all such bills on Dec. 23, the first day of a 35-day government shutdown.

A dedication and naming ceremony of the post office at 1100 West Kent Ave. in Missoula has yet to be scheduled.

“Once it becomes law, I get some information sent to me from (postal service) headquarters, and we start working with the community, the post office and congressional officials to have a ceremony,” Boxrud said. “We do a plaque and try to find family members of hers if there are any around.”

One possible date for the dedication would be next Aug. 26, the 100th anniversary of the day the 19th Amendment was officially adopted, granting women across the nation the right to vote.

Earlier this year the Montana Legislature passed an act to name a stretch of Interstate 90 through Missoula in Rankin’s memory. That dedication has been set for June 12, 2020, on what would be Rankin’s 140th birthday. New Jeannette Rankin elementary schools opened last year in Missoula and Kalispell.