Today’s post comes from Christine Blackerby, an archives specialist with the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
2017 marks the centennial of the swearing-in of the first woman to become a member of the U.S. Congress, Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana).
A pacifist and suffragist, Rankin was elected to Congress four years before the 19th Amendment gave women nationwide the right to vote. In 1914, her home state of Montana passed a law granting suffrage to women in that state. In fact, 15 states allowed women to vote before the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920.
Before running for Congress, Rankin promoted suffrage in many states with the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the 1910s. She was also heavily involved in the campaign for suffrage in Montana.
In 1916 she decided to try to continue that work in Congress. Running as a Republican, Rankin campaigned for one of two at-large seats from Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives. She came in second place, thus securing one of the seats.
Rankin was sworn into office in the 65th Congress on April 2, 1917. When Rankin arrived at the House that day, she presented her credential. This is the document that serves as evidence that a person was duly elected by the people of a state. It is usually signed by the governor and the secretary of state, as hers is.
On her first day, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. He cited Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and Germany’s attempts to recruit Mexico as an ally against the U.S.
Rankin found herself in a very tough position. She had long advocated for pacifism, and her inclination was to vote against war. But many of her suffragist supporters were concerned that if the only woman in Congress voted against war, it would damage the cause of woman suffrage by making women look weak.
Regardless, she cast her vote against the declaration of war, as did 49 other members. As a result, many suffragists pulled their support from her, although she continued to advocate in the House for suffrage.
In 1918 the House voted on a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage. Although that resolution failed, Rankin later said that she was “the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
She decided not to run for the House again after Montana redistricted and she felt she couldn’t win. She ran for the Senate instead, but lost in the Republican primary. She then mounted a third-party candidacy, but came up short again, and left Congress.
Her vote against war in 1917 had doomed her reelection bid, and for most of the next 21 years she worked on peace issues. However, she grew frustrated with the ineffectiveness of nongovernmental organizations, and she decided to try again from inside Congress. Isolationist sentiment was also growing strong in America in the 1930s, and her run for the House again in 1940 mostly centered on a platform of pacifism.
In 1940 Rankin was reelected. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she again was called upon to vote on war. Again, she voted against war—but this time she was the only person in Congress to do so.
She was ignored and ineffective for the rest of her term, and she chose not to run again. She continued, however, to advocate pacifism, including speaking out against the Vietnam War.
Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, had two controversial terms, and two career-ending controversial votes on war. But in an interview the year before her death in 1973, she said that if she had her life to relive, she’d do it all again, “But this time I’d be nastier.”
You can see a special document exhibit on Jeannette Rankin in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from January 26 though April 3, 2017.