Fifty members of the House of Representatives and six Senators voted against America’s entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, but we only remember the name of one: Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana and the first woman elected to Congress. Just four days into her term, she declared from the floor of the House: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Her principled stand compels respect one hundred years later.
No one life can stand in for the myriad roles that American women played in World War I, but Rankin’s life offers an intriguing window. For starters, it reminds us that support for American entry into the European conflict was far from universal. Woodrow Wilson himself had campaigned on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of war just the year before. The peace movement was strong and vibrant, and many women besides Rankin took public stands against war. Hull House founder Jane Addams chaired the Woman’s Peace Party and presided over the first International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915.
Jeannette Rankin’s stature as the first woman elected to national office also speaks to the larger roles women played in politics and public life even before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Rankin, born in 1880, belongs to the generation of suffragists who stood on the shoulders of foremothers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone. None of them lived to see its successful conclusion but Rankin not only won the right to vote in her native Montana in 1914 but also won election to Congress in 1916 in part on the basis of women’s newfound political status as voters.
Rankin’s principled anti-war stance foreshadowed a major dilemma for the American woman suffrage movement. The largest mainstream suffrage group, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, wholeheartedly threw itself behind the war effort. Suffragists joined other patriotic women on the home front in the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense and Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration. An intrepid band even served overseas as nurses, hospitality workers, and telephone operators for the American Expeditionary Force and the American Red Cross.
Other suffragists, including those who were allied with Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, continued to speak out against the war. When NWP pickets at the White House were attacked, arrested, and jailed, they became among the first victims of the repression of free speech that was a byproduct of America’s entry into the Great War. And yet when the war ended, there is no question that women’s patriotic service helped push the suffrage amendment over the top.
Sign up to receive Constitution Weekly, our email roundup of constitutional news and debate, at bit.ly/constitutionweekly
Jeannette Rankin also represents women who tried to influence the peace when hostilities ended. In 1919 she journeyed to Zurich to attend the Women’s International Conference for Permanent Peace and became a loyal member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, its direct outgrowth. Even though the United States did not join the League of Nations, women activists placed high hopes on the organization’s ability to prevent future outbreaks of war.
There is one group of American women whose experiences Jeannette Rankin did not stand in for during wartime: African Americans. Stymied by the racism of most white women’s organizations, including the suffrage movement, black women supported the war effort in their own communities and proudly stood behind the black soldiers who served overseas. But when the war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy ended, little had changed for African American women.
American participation in World War I reshaped the world order and contributed to the growth of the American state, but it also changed individual lives, including Jeannette Rankin’s. After her brave but unpopular vote against the war in 1917, she mounted a run for the Senate in 1918, but lost. In 1940 the voters of Montana returned Rankin to the House, where she was serving when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Once again, Rankin took a principled stand: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” She was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war.
Jeannette Rankin’s pacifism never wavered. In 1968 she protested the escalating war in Vietnam with a band of antiwar activists, feminists, and hippies who called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. Thus Rankin, who died in 1973 just shy of her ninety-third birthday, served as a bridge between two moments of antiwar and feminist activism.
Susan Ware is the General Editor of American National Biography and the Honorary Women’s Suffrage Centennial Historian at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
The National Constitution Center commemorates the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I on Wednesday, April 12 at 12 p.m. Learn more and get tickets.
Recent Historical Stories on Constitution Daily