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Jeannette Rankin was sworn in 100 years ago as the first congresswoman

Portrait of Jeannette Rankin by Sharon Sprung.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

This week, Mischiefs of Faction is hosting a symposium honoring Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), the first female member of the US House of Representatives, on the centennial of her taking the oath of office for the first time on April 2, 1917. Below, I sketch her life story and legacy. Subsequent posts will explore the broader themes of the representation of women and the women’s movement after the passage of the 19th Amendment.

A short biography of Rankin

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born near Missoula in western Montana. After graduating from the nearby University of Montana, she followed a restless path to Boston, San Francisco, New York (where she earned a graduate degree in social work from Columbia University), Washington state, and then back to Montana to successfully advocate for women’s suffrage.

Collection of the US House of Representatives

In 1916, Rankin ran for Congress and won on a platform of “equal suffrage, prohibition, and child welfare.” Her appearance in Washington, DC, to take her seat the following April caused an immense stir. For example, the New York Times noted:

[N]othing in the way of furnishings or knick-knacks had been added to the severe furnishings of [her office]. Nor, for that matter, was there any fluffiness about Miss Rankin’s costume.

On April 2, 1917, Rankin was escorted into the chamber by her fellow Montana representative to applause from the other members. When the House clerk called her name to confirm her presence, applause burst out again and continued until she rose and took a bow. Then the House elected Champ Clark (D-MO) speaker of the House, and the chamber did its grim business for the day: listening to President Woodrow Wilson make the case for entering World War I.

Four days later, the House reconvened to vote on a resolution of war against Germany. When her name was called, Rankin rose in her seat and said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.”

Rankin went on to advocate for women’s suffrage in the 65th Congress, successfully getting a constitutional amendment through the House of Representatives, although it died in the Senate. This laid the groundwork for the passage of the 19th Amendment through the 66th Congress.

Rankin lost her bid for reelection, then moved to Georgia, where she continued to work on peace and social welfare issues. As war clouds gathered in the late 1930s, she found her way back to Montana and onto the hustings. She won a House seat in the 1940 election and returned to Washington.

On December 8, 1941, a shaken House of Representatives gathered to vote on a resolution of war against Japan in response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This time, the Congress was completely united in its call for war ... except for the lonely vote of Jeannette Rankin, who proclaimed, “As a woman I cannot go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Her principled stand was not well-received at the time. Her own brother (and primary political backer) telegrammed that “Montana is 100% against you,” while the state Republican Party chair called on Rankin to “redeem Montana’s honor” by recanting her vote. Rankin quietly served out the rest of her term and did not run for reelection. Afterward, she returned to her work for women, peace, and social justice, passing away in Carmel, California, in 1973.

Rankin left an important legacy

Rankin is remembered for two big things: being the first female member of Congress, and her votes against both World War I and World War II. On the first achievement, she was the first of many to come, as this Pew report illustrates:

Drew DeSilver, Pew Research Center

As subsequent posts will explore, Rankin was followed by a limited number of female House members, so that only in the past four decades have women made real gains in congressional representation.

Her second legacy, of course, is opposition to war. Both of her votes against war were understood to be based on principled objection to conflicts that were generally approved (WWI) or universally demanded (WWII). Nonetheless, her 1917 statement is the one inscribed on her statue in the US Capitol: “I cannot vote for war.”

Statue: Terry Mimnaugh. Photo: Collection of the US House of Representatives

Rankin also deserves to be remembered as a leading suffragist. She worked to help Washington state and Montana adopt statewide suffrage, and then worked for national suffrage in the House of Representatives. She was more than a symbol of female representation; she helped lay the groundwork for generations of women politicians to follow. The rest of this series focuses on this part of her legacy: the progress of women in the decades after national suffrage, and in contemporary politics.

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