Young Belle Winestine described suffragist Jeanette Rankin as “magnetic,” with an “illuminous quality,” and quoted another observer of the charismatic Rankin as like a “young panther ready to spring.”
A century ago this year, Montana women won the right to vote. Two years later, in 1916, with ardent support of Winestine and others like her, Montana Republican Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress where she successfully sponsored legislation requiring equal pay for equal work in federal civil service jobs. She is not well remembered for her dynamism and visionary leadership, however. Her place in history is for voting with the small minority against World War I.
Winestine served as Rankin’s congressional assistant until Rankin left Congress after she was defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1918. Winestine later observed that a speech Rankin gave in support of mandatory mine safety regulations to a huge crowd in Butte following a catastrophic underground fire there, was so powerful and compelling that it was followed by nearly 15 minutes of applause. She felt however, that the powerful Anaconda Company, fearful of the election of such an effective advocate for mine workers, then used its influence to prevent Rankin from going to the Senate.
I met Belle when she was in the halls of the Montana legislature in the late 1970s urging legislators to not rescind earlier ratification of the Equal Right Amendment. She was barely five feet tall. She had kind and lively eyes, and her trademark was a sprig of greenery in her hair. She had a gentleness about her, but was direct in her speech, and there was no mistaking her meaning when she spoke.
After her time in Congress with Rankin, in 1932 Winestine ran for the Montana Senate from Lewis and Clark County. A political progressive like her mentor Rankin, the diminutive Winestine, sometimes with her three children in tow, campaigned energetically to expand and adequately fund the state Children’s Bureau to aid neglected children in the deepening depression. Her lighthearted campaign slogan was “Smaller and better Senators.” Alas, she was defeated by her more traditional opponent Democrat Russell Hart, described by the Helena Independent as a “big, well groomed Kiwanian.”
Winestine made no more forays into politics, and did not join Jeannette Rankin in Washington when she returned there for her second term in 1941. Later that year Rankin was the only member of Congress to oppose the declaration of war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Belle was in Helena at that time, and remembered being “accosted” by people who knew of her closeness to Rankin and were outraged by Rankin’s “no” vote.
Rankin didn’t seek re-election in 1942, and was succeeded in Congress by pro-war Democrat Mike Mansfield. Thirty years later, Rankin and Mansfield agreed in their opposition to the Vietnam War.
In her later years, Winestine was an organizer of what became the Montana League of Women Voters, which was the leading group in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. While 35 states including Montana ratified the ERA, it was never approved by the 38 necessary to add amendments to the Constitution. Realizing this, in one of her last public statements, Winestine said sadly and succinctly, “men and women should work together without worrying about which one is better.”
Belle Winestine passed away in Helena in 1985 at the age of 94.
In honor of the centennial of women’s suffrage in Montana, the Montana Historical Society is featuring a highly informative Web page at
Montanawomenshistory.org. All history buffs should be sure to check it out.
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and Montana Senate President.