Women’s History Month: First Woman Sworn into Congress 100 Years Ago

Jeannette Rankin, 1917

Jeannette Rankin, 1917

One hundred years ago this Sunday—on April 2, 1917—Jeannette Rankin was sworn into the 65th Congress as the first woman elected to serve. She took her seat more than two years before Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women nationwide the right to vote. That alone is remarkable, but Rankin also made history in another way: she voted against U.S. involvement in both 20th-century world wars—and paid a price for doing so.

To commemorate Rankin’s life and career, the Library of Congress is co-presenting a world premiere song cycle on April 7 with Opera America. “Fierce Grace—Jeannette Rankin,” a collaborative work by multiple women composers, will be performed in the Coolidge Auditorium, followed by a panel discussion.

Rankin campaigned in 1916 as a suffragist, pacifist and social reformer, prevailing against seven men in the Republican primary in her home state of Montana, where women had gained the right to vote in 1914. She became a national celebrity when she won a seat in the general election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rankin arrived in Washington, D.C., to festivities in her honor. Suffrage leaders, including Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, hosted a breakfast for her, and a procession of suffragists accompanied her to the Capitol. Fellow House members greeted her with applause.

Jeannette Rankin, right, in carriage with Carrie Chapman Catt, center, upon Rankin's arrival in Washington, D.C.

Jeannette Rankin, right, in a carriage with Carrie Chapman Catt, center, upon Rankin’s arrival in Washington, D.C.

But things turned somber quickly. On the evening of April 2, President Woodrow Wilson called on Congress to authorize U.S. entry into World War I. On April 6, after days of debate, Rankin joined 55 congressional colleagues in voting against the war resolution. She did so in opposition to many suffragists, who feared a no vote would hurt the suffrage cause. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” Rankin is widely quoted as stating.

For the remainder of her term, Rankin advocated for the rights of women and children, worker safety, and equal pay for women, and she played a major role in bringing a suffrage amendment to the House floor, where it passed before the Senate voted it down.

Rankin ran for a Senate seat in 1918, but she failed to win her primary. She returned to private life, moving to Georgia, where she lectured and supported causes dear to her, including women’s rights and peace.

She ran for Congress again in 1939, following the start of World War II in Europe. She felt that she could have the most effect as a member of Congress in keeping the United States out of the war. She returned to Montana to run as a peace candidate, winning handily.

But her time in Congress was once again short lived. She was the only member to vote against U.S. entry into the war on December 8, 1941. “As a woman I cannot go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she reportedly said. An angry mob nearly attacked her when she left the chamber, and she sought safety in a telephone booth, where police rescued her.

At the end of her term, Rankin opted out of national politics for good, although she continued her involvement in peace efforts, speaking out against the Korean and Vietnam Wars. On January 15, 1968, at age 87, she led nearly 5,000 women in a march on Washington, D.C., against the Vietnam War. The marchers called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. Rankin died in May 1973 at age 93.

In an article published in McCalls’s magazine in 1958, John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator, cited Rankin as one of three truly courageous women in U.S. history. “Few members of Congress since its founding in 1789 have ever stood more alone, more completely in defiance of popular conviction,” Kennedy wrote. We may disagree with her stand, he added, but it is impossible not to admire her courage.

Information about Library of Congress concerts and ticketing is available here.

2 Comments

  1. Abigail Roesch
    March 31, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    Jeannette Rankin is one of history’s forgotten heroes; I am so excited to see the Library of Congress blog highlighting her accomplishments. It is amazing to comprehend that she had the courage ran for office before women had the right to vote and what she was able to accomplish during her time in the House. Her impact on history as “the only woman who voted for women the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote” reminds us just how far we have come. Her bravery to stand up alone to vote against declaring war on Japan highlights why she is a true role model for young girls everywhere. 100 years later, she is a constant reminder of where we started and where we are going.

  2. Cary Michael Cox
    April 1, 2017 at 10:55 am

    You have contributed to the adage, “You learn something new every day.”.

    I love US History, though I’m embarrassed to say until I read this article I had no idea who was the first woman elected to Congress.

    My wife’s family name on her mom’s side is Rankin, I’ll have to share this information with her!

    Hopefully in this 100th year more news stories will be written about her.

    Cary Michael Cox

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