Jeannette Rankin is one of those uniquely American characters that deserves to be remembered. She was a voice for peace in three different wars, a trailblazer in the field of women’s rights, political history, social work, and public service. She was the first woman ever to serve in the United States House of Representatives. She is also the only person to have voted against American entry into World War I and World War II. Jeannette Rankin lived a life of service and purpose.
Jeannette Rankin – From Montana to the World
She was born on a ranch near Missoula in the Montana Territory in 1880. At 22, Jeannette Rankin graduated from the University of Montana, a remarkable feat for a woman in the Old West at that time. She worked as a schoolteacher for a while, then traveled across the country to attend the New York School of Philanthropy. (Today part of Columbia University School of Social Work.) Although Rankin found neither social work nor teaching the right career for her, the level of education she pursued and her commitment to change was astounding. Jeannette Rankin pursued graduate work in Washington state and became a tireless suffragette. She traveled the country several times over, working to get women the right to vote. Rankin was instrumental in leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Montana. The women of the Big Sky State got the right to vote before women of New York or Illinois. And Jeannette Rankin was central to the victory.
Jeannette Rankin – First Woman in Congress
Only two years later, Jeannette Rankin was elected to represent Montana in the United States Congress. She was a determined progressive Republican in the mold of Robert La Follette and Theodore Roosevelt, although she and Roosevelt were polar opposites on foreign affairs. The election of Jeannette Rankin was made all the more remarkable by the fact that women did not yet have the constitutional right to vote in the United States! She probably cast a vote in favor of the proposed amendment to the Constitution that would remedy this tremendous injustice. Her first term in Congress began in 1916. It was a memorable time. She voted for Prohibition and against the Espionage Act of 1917, which she saw as a dangerous curtailment of civil rights. As the lone woman in Congress, she was able to vote for several important laws to protect the rights of women and children. But the overriding issue of the day was the potential involvement of the United States in the First World War.
Voting Against War – Part One
When Pres. Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany, the mood in the country had changed dramatically. We had gone from being a nation that was basically isolationist to considering our first major military intervention in a foreign war. Patriotism and support for the president was overwhelming. Only 50 members of Congress voted against authorizing the war. Jeannette Rankin was one of them. She explained: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.”
The Montana state legislature quickly read through the boundaries of her district, giving it a Democratic majority. That, along with her much despised vote against USA support of World War One, caused her to not seek reelection to the House. Instead, Jeannette Rankin sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. She was narrowly defeated in the primary. She then became the first woman ever to launch a major campaign for election to the Senate. She ran as an independent. Montana thoroughly rejected her bid, but she made history nonetheless.
Back To Congress
After leaving Congress, she worked for a number of progressive causes. Serving as a field secretary for the National Consumers’ League, she became a major voice for the abolition of child labor. Rankin became a national spokeswoman on several major pacifist committees. She campaigned against America’s growing involvement in World War II. Jeannette Rankin opposed the ending of neutrality laws and spoke against the Lend-Lease Act. Rankin establish a part time home in Georgia before moving back to Montana to seek a return to Congress in 1940. When she took her seat in 1941, she was now one of six women in the House of Representatives.
Voting Against War – Part Two
In December, 1941 the attack on Pearl Harbor stunned and angered Americans. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt spoke for the nation when he called the attack “A date which will live in infamy.” When Congress voted on a declaration of war against Japan there was only one “no” vote. Jeannette Rankin. She explained: “Killing more people won’t solve anything,” and “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Police had to escort her from the floor; threats against her life were numerous. Her lone vote against the war made her an object of scorn across the nation and once again she retired from Congress.
Voting Against War – Part Three (Almost)
Jeannette Rankin spent the next 20 years traveling to India to study Gandhi and continued her advocacy for women’s issues, peace and civil rights. In 1968, at age 87, she led a march of 5,000 people – “The Jeannette Rankin Brigade” – on Washington to demand an end to the Vietnam War! Click here to listen to her speak about that march. She was contemplating another run for Congress when she died of natural causes in 1973. She endowed a scholarship and left her estate to unemployed women.
Her official biography from the House of Representatives.