The following is a cross-post from the Library of Congress Blog, written by Wendi Maloney and published on March 31, 2017 under the title “Women’s History Month: First Woman Sworn Into Congress 100 Years Ago.”
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.
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.
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