Jeannette Rankin – First Woman Elected to the U.S. Congress

 

Rankin's portrait, by Sharon Sprung, in the House of Representatives Collection

Rankin’s portrait, by Sharon Sprung.
Photo: Courtesy of the House of Representatives Collection

Jeannette Rankin’s life was filled with extraordinary achievements: she was the first woman elected to Congress, one of the few suffragists elected to Congress, and the only Member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed upon her election in 1916. “But I won’t be the last.”1

Jeannette Rankin, the eldest daughter of a rancher and a schoolteacher, was born near Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880. She graduated from Montana State University (now the University of Montana) in 1902 and attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later the Columbia University School of Social Work). After a brief period as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, Rankin entered the University of Washington in Seattle. It was there that she joined the woman suffrage movement, a campaign that achieved its goal in Washington State in 1910. Rankin became a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her speaking and organizing efforts helped Montana women gain the vote in 1914.

When Rankin decided in 1916 to run for a House seat from Montana, she had two key advantages: her reputation as a suffragist and her politically well-connected brother, Wellington, who financed her campaign. Some national woman suffrage leaders feared she would lose and hurt the cause. The novelty of a woman running for Congress, however, helped Rankin secure a GOP nomination for one of Montana’s two At-Large House seats on August 29, 1916.2 Rankin ran as a progressive, pledging to work for a constitutional woman suffrage amendment and emphasizing social welfare issues. Long a committed pacifist, she did not shy away from letting voters know how she felt about possible U.S. participation in the European war that had been raging for two years: “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.”3 Rankin came in second, winning one of Montana’s seats. She trailed the frontrunner, Democratic Representative John M. Evans, by 7,600 votes, but she topped the next candidate— another Democrat–by 6,000 votes. Rankin ran a nonpartisan campaign in a Democratic state during a period of national hostility toward parties in general. And this was the first opportunity for Montana women to vote in a federal election. “I am deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon me,” read her public victory statement.4

Rankin’s service began dramatically when Congress was called into an extraordinary April session after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. On April 2, 1917, she arrived at the Capitol to be sworn in along with the other Members of the 65th Congress (1917–1919).5 Escorted by her Montana colleague, Rankin looked like “a mature bride rather than a strong-minded female,” an observer wrote, “… When her name was called the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice, which she did with entire self-possession.”6

That evening, Congress met in Joint Session to hear President Woodrow Wilson ask to “make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany. The House debated the war resolution on April 5th. Given Rankin’s strong pacifist views, she was inclined against war. Colleagues in the suffrage movement urged caution, fearing that a vote against war would tarnish the entire cause. Rankin sat out the debate over war, a decision she later regretted.7 She inadvertently violated House rules by making a brief speech when casting her vote. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she told the House. “I vote no.”8 The final vote was 374 for the war resolution and 50 against. The Helena Independent likened her to “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”—even though Montana mail to Rankin’s office ran against U.S. intervention.9 NAWSA distanced the suffrage movement from Rankin: “Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation—she represents Montana.”10 Others, such as Representative Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, were quick to defend her.11

Image courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, Helena Jeannette Rankin (right) on April 2, 1917, with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, at the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later that historic day, Rankin was officially sworn into the 65th Congress.

Jeannette Rankin (right) on April 2, 1917, with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, at the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later that historic day, Rankin was officially sworn into the 65th Congress.
Photo: Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, Helena

As the first woman Member, Rankin was on the frontlines of the national suffrage fight. During the fall of 1917 she advocated the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage, and when it was created she was appointed to it.12 When the special committee reported out a constitutional amendment on woman suffrage in January 1918, Rankin opened the very first House Floor debate on this subject.13 “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen?” she asked. “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?”14 The resolution narrowly passed the House amid the cheers of women in the galleries, but it died in the Senate.15

Rankin did not ignore her Montana constituency in the midst of this activity. She was assigned to the Committee on Public Lands, which was concerned with western issues. When a mine disaster in Butte resulted in a massive protest strike by miners over their working conditions, violence soon broke out. Responding to pleas from more-moderate miner unions, Rankin unsuccessfully sought help from the Wilson administration through legislation and through her personal intervention in the crisis. These efforts failed as the mining companies refused to meet with either her or the miners.16 Rankin expected the mining interests to extract a cost for her support of the striking miners. “They own the State,” she noted. “They own the Government. They own the press.”17

Prior to the 1918 election, the Montana state legislature passed legislation replacing the state’s two At-Large seats with two separate districts, and Rankin found herself in the overwhelmingly Democratic western district.18 Faced with the possibility of running against an incumbent or running in a district controlled by the other party, she decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Rankin ran on the slogan “Win the War First,” promising to support the Wilson administration “to more efficiently prosecute the war.”19 In a three-way contest, Rankin came in second in the Republican senatorial primary, less than 2,000 votes behind the winner.20

Charges that Republicans were bribing her to withdraw compelled her to undertake what she knew was an impossible task—running in the general election on a third-party ticket. “Bribes are not offered in such a way that you can prove them, and in order to prove that I didn’t accept a bribe I had to run,” she would later recall.21 The incumbent, Democratic Senator Thomas Walsh, did not underestimate Rankin: “If Miss R. had any party to back her she would be dangerous.”22 In the end, Rankin finished third, winning a fifth of the total votes cast, while Walsh won re-election with a plurality. Ironically, the Republican candidate for Rankin’s House district narrowly won.23

Afterwards, Rankin divided her time between pacifism and social welfare. She attended the Women’s International Conference for Permanent Peace in Switzerland in 1919 and joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1928, she founded the Georgia Peace Society after purchasing a farm in that state. Rankin became the leading lobbyist and speaker for the National Council for the Prevention of War from 1929 to 1939. She also remained active in advocating social welfare programs. During the early 1920s she was a field secretary for the National Consumers’ League. Rankin’s activities largely consisted of lobbying Congress to pass social welfare legislation, such as the Sheppard–Towner bill and a constitutional amendment banning child labor.

It was the looming war crisis in 1940 that 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.24 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.25 In the general election, she faced Jerry J. O’Connell, who had been ousted by Thorkelson from Congress in the previous election. Rankin went into the race confident that the mining industry no longer carried the hefty political influence she faced earlier.26 Eminent Progressives endorsed her: Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City.27 On election day Rankin won re-election to the House with 54 percent of the votes cast for a second term—just less than a quarter of a century after she was elected to her first term.28 “No one will pay any attention to me this time,” the victor predicted. “There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected.”29

As it had 24 years earlier, the threat of war dominated the start of Rankin’s new term. She gained appointments to the Committee on Public Lands and the Committee on Insular Affairs, two lower-tier committees that, nevertheless, proved useful to her western constituency. By the time of Rankin’s election, the war in Europe was in full force and a debate about U.S. involvement had broken out. In this raging debate, Rankin had taken an arms-length attitude towards the leading isolationist group, the America First Committee. Largely made up of opponents to the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt. Rankin found herself out of sympathy with much of their domestic agenda.30

Nevertheless, Rankin made her pacifist views known early in the session. During deliberations over the Lend-Lease Bill to supply the Allied war effort, she offered an unsuccessful amendment in February 1941 requiring specific congressional approval for sending U.S. troops abroad. “If Britain needs our material today,” she asked, “will she later need our men?”31 In May she introduced a resolution condemning any effort “to send the armed forces of the United States to fight in any place outside the Western Hemisphere or insular possessions of the United States.”32 She repeated her request the following month to no avail. That Rankin’s stance was not an unusual one was demonstrated by the close margin granting President Franklin Roosevelt’s request to allow American merchant ships to be armed in the fall of 1941.33

Rankin was en route to Detroit on a speaking engagement when she heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. She returned to Washington the next morning, determined to oppose U.S. participation in the war. Immediately after President Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress, the House and Senate met to deliberate on a declaration of war.34 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 and declared her out of order. Other Members called for her to sit down. Others approached her on the House Floor, trying to convince her to either vote for the war or abstain.35 When the roll call vote was taken, Rankin voted “No” amid what the Associated Press described as “a chorus of hisses and boos.”36 Rankin went on to announce, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”37 The war resolution passed the House 388–1.

Condemnation of her stand was immediate and intense, forcing Rankin briefly to huddle in a phone booth before receiving a police escort to her office.38 “I voted my convictions and redeemed my campaign pledges,” she told her constituents.39 “Montana is 100 percent against you,” wired her brother Wellington.40 In private, she told friends “I have nothing left but my integrity.”41 The vote essentially made the rest of Rankin’s term irrelevant. Having made her point, she only voted “present” when the House declared war on Germany and Italy.42 She found that her colleagues and the press simply ignored her. 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.

Rankin continued to divide her time between Montana and Georgia in the years after she left Congress. India became one of her favorite excursions; 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, California, Rankin was considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.

Footnotes

1Cited in Winifred Mallon, “An Impression of Jeannette Rankin,” The Suffragist (March 31, 1917).

2Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002): 99.

3Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 101.

4Ibid., 104.

5Hannah Josephson, Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs–Merrill, 1974): 68–70.

6Washington Wife: Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden from 1897–1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1962, 1963): 299.

7In December 1917 during the debate over war with Austria–Hungary, Rankin did speak, though she voted in favor of the resolution. At that time, she said, “I still believe that war is a stupid and futile way of attempting to settle international disputes. I believe that war can be avoided and will be avoided when the people, the men and women in America, as well as in Germany, have the controlling voice in their government.” See, Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 84; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 114.

8Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 76; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 112; and Nancy Unger, “RANKIN, Jeannette Pickering,” American National Biography (ANB) 18 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 142.

9Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 77; see page 75 for public opinion mail.

10Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 113.

11Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 66.

12When the committee was established, there was a move to make Rankin the chair, despite her belonging to the minority party. See, Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 93–94.

13Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 123.

14Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 97–98.

15Ibid., 99; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 125–126.

16Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 88–92; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 127–133.

17Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 131.

18Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 102–103; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 133–134.

19Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 135.

20Oscar Lanstrum received 18,805 votes and Rankin 17,091 out of 46,027 cast. See, Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 137.

21Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 104. See also, Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 137–138.

22Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 140.

23Michael J. Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections: 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 424; 428.

24Smith, America’s Conscience: 172–173. For a contemporary press account of Thorkelson’s reputation see, “:Democracy’s Mental Dissolution Pictured as Nazi Goal in U.S.,” 20 July 1940, Christian Science Monitor: 15.

25Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 172–175; Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 153–155.

26Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 156.

27Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 176.

28“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

29Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 177.

30Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 157; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 180.

31Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 180–181; Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 158.

32Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 158–159.

33Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 290–292.

34Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 160–161; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 183.

35Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 161–162. The Mutual Radio Network, which had broadcast the president’s address, continued broadcasting in the House Chamber. As a result, portions of the House debate went out live over the radio until House officials realized what was happening during the roll call. As part of a National Public Radio feature, Walter Cronkite reports on this broadcast focusing on the war of wills between Speaker Rayburn and Rankin. “The Lone War Dissenter: Walter Cronkite Remembers Pearl Harbor, Jeanette Rankin,” NPR’s All Things Considered http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2001/dec/cronkite/011207.cronkite.html (accessed August 10, 2004);

36Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 162.

37Unger, “Rankin, Jeannette Pickering,” ANB: 142.

38Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 162; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 183.

39Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 184.

40Ibid.

41Ibid.

42Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 163–164; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 186.

 Source: U.S. House of Representatives Historical Records: http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-%28R000055%29/ (Accessed: August 13, 2016)

 

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