Four Years Before Women Had the Right to Vote, Jeannette Rankin Was Elected to Congress

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In 1916, four years before the Constitution recognized her right to vote, Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress. While women had not achieved suffrage across the U.S. yet, there were no laws barring them from holding office in the Capitol. So Rankin, with her belief that “men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn’t make sense not to use both,” set out to fight for change for women from within the government.

Rankin was sworn in as a representative from Montana in April 1917.

She had helped secure women the right to vote in her home state three years earlier and had intended to bring the fight to the rest of the nation early in her term. The 65th Congress would not have a normal session that year, though, and not only would Rankin’s plans be derailed, but another of her convictions – her anti-war sentiment – would be tested and become the focal point of her term.

Just Say No

World War I was raging in Europe, and just before Congress convened that spring, Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. Woodrow Wilson had requested Congress declare war against Germany, but Americans and their representatives were still divided on whether the U.S. should enter the conflict. The government was wary of foreign entanglements, but with the news of submarine warfare on American interests, many moods on Capitol Hill shifted quickly.

Rankin’s had not. She’d campaigned on a pacifist platform and was not about to change her mind on the matter. Just a month into her term, the House voted on a resolution to enter the war. When the roll call first came on the vote, Rankin remained silent. Representative Joe Cannon of Illinois approached her on the floor afterward and advised her, “Little woman, you cannot afford not to vote. You represent the womanhood of the country in the American Congress.”

On the second roll call, she voted “no” and entered a comment with her vote, stating: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Forty-nine others voted with her, but the war was on, and Rankin took criticism from war hawks nationwide for the duration of the conflict. Even suffrage groups dropped their support of her, though they would later come out against the war.

The publicity and the unpopularity of her beliefs did not seem to faze Rankin. She got right to securing suffrage for women, opening the congressional debate on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment later that year. Just three years later, the 19th Amendment was ratified and gave women nationwide the right to vote. Rankin, ironically, did not even get to vote on the amendment; she was no longer in Congress at the time. By the end, the public had overwhelmingly come to support the war, and when Rankin’s term was over the year before, her pacifism cost her both reelection to the House and a Senate campaign. The amendment she’d worked so hard on was voted on—and passed—by an all-male Congress.

Out of Office

Rankin worked in the private sector for a few years and returned to Congress in 1939. This time, she was joined by five other women in the House and two in the Senate. Two years later, on a day that would live in infamy, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The morning after, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke before a Joint Session of Congress and called for a formal declaration of war on Japan. The Senate obliged in less than an hour and the House leaders felt pressure to follow suit. During the vote, Rankin commented, “as a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”  The final vote was 388-1, with Rankin as the sole dissenter.

Rankin’s public image suffered and she was denounced by both the press and other politicians. She knew her pacifism would, as it had decades before, cost her re-election. When her term was up, she didn't even run.

Even after her political career ended, Ranking continued to further the cause of pacifism. In the late 1960s, she protested the Vietnam War at marches in Washington. She died in the spring of 1973,  just two years before Saigon fell and the US pulled out of Vietnam.

June 14, 2012 - 6:16am
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