|Jeannette Rankin, First Lady of the House, c. |
1917. (Photo from Library of Congress.)
- The first woman elected to Congress, in 1916.
- The only woman who voted (in 1917) to give women the right to vote.
- The only Member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry in both World War I and World War II.
After serving as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, Rankin entered the University of Washington in Seattle, where she joined the reinvigorated woman suffrage movement that obtained votes for women in Washington State in 1910.
Rankin then became a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and in 1914 helped get Montana voters to support votes for women in that state. Rankin decided in 1916 to run for a House seat from Montana based on her reputation as a suffragist and the support of her brother Wellington Rankin. [Her cause would have been supported by Inez Milholland when she came through Montana in October 1916.]
In 1916 Rankin won the Republican nomination. In that era, Republicans were still associated with Lincoln and until 1932 were considered the more progressive party. Rankin pledged to work for a Federal woman suffrage amendment and for more social welfare, and made clear her opposition to the United States joining what was seen as the "European" war.
Rankin's campaign in a Democratic state had a nonpartisan flavor at a time when both political parties were suspect. She came in second, winning one of Montana’s two at-large (since it was a new state) seats in the House, 7,600 votes behind the Democrat in first place and 6,000 votes ahead of another Democrat in third place. Her commitment to woman suffrage helped her in a state where women were voting for the first time.
On April 2, 1917, she was sworn in as a member of the 65th Congress (1917–1919), dubbed "The First Lady of the House". When her name was called the House cheered and rose. She then stood up and bowed twice. That evening, Congress met in extraordinary Joint Session to hear President Woodrow Wilson ask to “make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany because it had declared submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping. The House debated the war resolution on April 5. Her suffrage colleagues asked her not to oppose the war, fearing that this a would tarnish their cause. Rankin was silent during the war debate, which she regretted afterwards, but she voted against it, one of 50, with 374 in favor. The Helena Independent said she was
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.NAWSA said that Rankin was not voting on behalf of women, but on behalf of Montana, but Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, later Mayor of New York City, defended her,.
Later in 1917 she called for the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage. It was created she was appointed to it. The special committee reported out the so-called Anthony Amendment to the Constitution, recognizing women's right to vote, in January 1918, Rankin opened the first House Floor debate on this subject. She said:
How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen? 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?The resolution narrowly passed the House amid the cheers of women in the galleries, but it died in the Senate.
At the end of her first term, Rankin decided to run for the U.S. Senate. In a three-way contest, Rankin came in second in the Republican senatorial primary, less than 2,000 votes behind the winner. She ran in the general election on a third-party ticket, finishing third, with one-fifth of the votes cast, while the incumbent won re-election with a plurality.
Afterwards, Rankin divided her time between pacifism and social welfare, working with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Rankin and becoming the leading lobbyist and speaker for the National Council for the Prevention of War in 1929-1939. During the early 1920s she was also a field secretary for the National Consumers’ League, lobbying Congress to pass social welfare legislation, such as the Sheppard–Towner bill and a constitutional amendment banning child labor.
The looming war crisis in 1940 brought Rankin back to Congress. She returned to Montana with her eye on the western House district held by first-term Republican Representative Jacob Thorkelson—an outspoken anti-Semite. Rankin drew on her status as the first woman elected to Congress to speak throughout the district to high school students on the issue of war and peace. When the Republican primary results were in, Rankin defeated three candidates, including the incumbent. Her endorsements included Sen. Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City. Rankin won re-election to the House with 54 percent of the votes, nearly a quarter-century after she was elected to her first term.
As it had in her first term, the threat of war dominated the start of Rankin’s second. After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, FDR addressed a Joint Session of Congress, and then the House and Senate deliberated on a declaration of war. Rankin repeatedly tried to gain recognition once the first reading of the war resolution was completed in the House. In the brief debate on the resolution, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas refused to recognize her, declaring her out of order. The war resolution passed the House 388–1. She was immediately condemned widely for her vote against the war. She only voted “present” when the House declared war on Germany and Italy. She chose not to run for re-election in 1942, and her district replaced the isolationist Republican with an internationalist Democrat who had served in three branches of the military, Mike Mansfield.
After she left the Congress, India became one of her favorite places to visit, as she was drawn by the nonviolent protest tactics of Mohandas K. Gandhi. During the Vietnam War, she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, numbering 5,000, in a protest march on Washington in January 1968 that culminated in the presentation of a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts. Her 90th birthday in 1970 was celebrated in the Rayburn House Office Building with a reception and dinner. At the time of her death, on May 18, 1973, in Carmel, Calif., Rankin was considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.