Women can’t vote, but they can run for Congress

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Representative Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), By Matzene, 1917; Courtesy of the Senate Historical Office

While the Constitution does not say who is eligible to vote, it does say who is eligible to run for Congress.

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty-five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.

That means ladies could run, too. And one did, four years before the Constitution recognized her right to vote.

Jeanette Rankin was sworn into Congress in April 1917, as a representative from Montana. She had helped secure women the right to vote in Montana in 1914, and now had her eye on the rest of the nation.

But the calling of the 65th Congress in April 1917 was not a normal Congressional session. Congress had been convened because Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. Woodrow Wilson had requested Congress declare war against Germany.

There was still heavy division on whether the United States should enter the conflict. Wary of foreign entanglements, but aware that Germany and its allies had all but declared war on the United States and its interests, the United States had prolonged its entrance into the fray. But with the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare and the discovery of the Zimmerman telegraph, the popular mood had shifted. Ms. Rankin’s had not.

When the roll call first came on the vote, Rankin remained silent. Former Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois sought her out on the floor and advised: “Little woman, you cannot afford not to vote. You represent the womanhood of the country in the American Congress.” On the second reading of the roll she voted ‘No,’ inadvertently violating House rules by rising from her seat to give a short speech: “I want to stand by my country—but I cannot vote for war.” The vote was cast at 3:12 a.m. on April 6, 1917. By a vote of 373 to 50, the US was going to war with Germany. It was Rankin’s fourth day in Congress.

As military-aged men shipped off to war, women flowed into the war factories. A year into the war, the House first passed the 19th amendment, though apparently the decision was more divisive than a declaration of war.The vote was 274-136. The Senate failed to pass the amendment outright, and so it was shelved again until the next Congress when it passed.

Of the first House vote on the issue, Rankin spoke. “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?”

Ninety years ago today, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Women could vote. Ironically, when the Admendment was adopted, Rankin was no longer in Congress. She had not sought re-election in the House (she did run for Senate and lost by just 2,000 votes in the primary), and so the Congress was an all-male one.

However, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Rankin was again representing Montana in Congress. On December 8, 1941, with the Pacific Fleet still smoldering, the House voted 388-1 in favor of declaring war on Japan. Rankin was the sole dissenter. Days later when the House voted on entering into war against the remaining axis powers, Rankin only said “present” when the roll call was made. Of her “no” vote against entering war with Japan she said, “as a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”

Though she was the lone vote against war with Japan, she was no longer the lone female. Nine other women had joined her in the 77th Congress.

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