It was on April 2, 1917 that Jeannette Rankin became the first woman in Congress. But within days, she became the target of national scorn for voting against America’s entry into World War I.
Four years before the 19th Amendment's ratification, which extended the right to vote to all American women, Rankin was elected as the first woman member of Congress. A Republican from Montana, Rankin ran on a platform promising a constitutional amendment for woman’s suffrage and reforms on other social welfare issues such as child labor. Despite the fact that she was elected in 1916, she wasn’t sworn in as a Representative until April 2, 1917, only after Congress had a month-long debate about whether a woman was fit to be a United States Representative.
Born in 1880, Rankin was a trailblazer and activist from a young age. After graduating Montana State University, she worked as a social worker in Washington before joining the woman suffrage movement in that state, which extended to women the right to vote in 1910. By 1914 she was experienced in navigating the suffrage battle and she was a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, where she contributed to the woman suffrage campaign in Montana.
When she announced her candidacy for a House seat in Montana in 1916, some were understandably skeptical about her chances. While her election was a long shot, she benefitted from her political experience and reputation as an activist, and from support from her wealthy brother Wellington. During the campaign, she took a staunch pacifist position towards U.S. participation in World War I, and she pledged that she would not vote for any American involvement in the deadly European conflict. After her victory, she acknowledged the gravity of her achievement for women across the country and said that she was “deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon” her.
On April 2, the same day that she officially became the first female member of Congress, President Wilson addressed Congress encouraging it to pass a declaration of war and authorize United States involvement in World War I.
As she voted no on the declaration of war three days later, she told her colleagues “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war”. The resolution ultimately passed 373 to 50, but Rankin established herself as both an active member of Congress and a staunch anti-war representative.
The Helena Independent called her “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.” Others questioned if women were able to be congressional representatives. “Miss Rankin's vote is regarded, not as that of a pacifist, but rather as one dictated by the inherent abhorrence of women for war,” said the New York Times.
Later in 1917, Rankin led the fight in Congress to create the Committee on Woman Suffrage, and worked on the Committee to produce a constitutional amendment extending suffrage to women nationally. While the particular resolution the committee produced eventually failed to pass the Senate, she rallied support for it among her colleagues in the House by asking on the floor, “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”
As she was considering reelection in 1918, the Montana House passed legislation altering how representatives from the state were to be elected, which resulted in her being assigned to an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Acknowledging the difficulty of being re-elected to the House, she decided to campaign for the Senate seat in Montana, but eventually lost in the Republican primary. Never one to easily capitulate in the face of adversity, she pursued a third party run for Senate but eventually finished third.
After spending the next 20 years as an anti-war and social welfare activist, she ran again for a House seat in Montana in 1940. Again she triumphed and joined the House as the United States was debating whether to enter another world war. Even in the face of the destruction in Europe and the imperialism of Nazi Germany, she remarked on the House floor that “as a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
Most pacifist sentiment quickly evaporated in the United States after the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war. Rankin’s sole vote against a declaration of war against Japan garnered “boos and hisses” in the House chamber, and made her the only representative to vote against entry to both World Wars.
While she maintained that “killing more people won’t help matters,” her vote was extremely unpopular and contributed to her decision to not seek re-election in 1942. After her term, she continued to be an anti-war advocate, and was outspoken against America’s involvement in Vietnam decades after her vote against the WWII declaration.
Rankin died in 1973 after a colorful life of public service, activism, and courageous, historic firsts. Today, nearly 24 percent of members of Congress are women. While parity among men and women has still yet to be realized, it’s obvious that the efforts of activists and trailblazers like Rankin have helped move our country forward, and recognize the ideals first articulated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.