Rankin’s arrival in Congress on April 1, 1917, was front-page news across the country. As a male Montana lawmaker escorted Rankin to her seat in the rear center of the House, all the members and spectators in the gallery rose cheering. Rankin wore a dark dress and no hat, the Associated Press reported. Congressmen treated her politely, but one newspaper warned her against venturing into the Republican cloakroom, where she would have to endure “swear words and mingled grades of tobacco smoke.”
The new congresswoman made a splash with a vote on her first day. Congress held a joint session to hear President Woodrow Wilson call for a resolution of war against Germany to “make the world safe for democracy.” Rankin, a pacifist, was one of 50 House members to vote against the resolution. Back home, the Helena Independent labeled her a “a dupe of the Kaiser” and “a crying school girl.”
The congresswoman earned respect by pushing her women’s rights agenda, but in 1918, she lost her bid for a Senate seat that would have made her the first woman in that chamber. As a lobbyist, she helped win passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, in 1920. She was elected to the House again in 1940. When male lawmakers referred to her as “the lady from Montana,” she adopted a line from a female colleague: “I’m no lady. I’m a member of Congress.”
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Rankin was the only lawmaker to vote against a resolution of war. Amid an angry outcry, she was given a police escort to her office. Rankin didn’t run in 1942. She would later consider another House run from California in 1970 to protest the Vietnam War. She died in 1973 at the age of 92.
Rankin’s pioneering efforts inspired other women to seek political office. In 1920, 66-year-old Alice Robertson, an Oklahoma Republican, became the second woman elected to the House. Robertson was an advocate for Native Americans but opposed the women’s rights movement. She was the first woman to defeat an incumbent but lost her seat after one term.
In 1925, Florence Kahn, a California Republican, became the fifth female representative and the first Jewish woman in the House. At 59, Kahn won a special election to take over the seat long held by her husband, who had died. She made a name for herself and became the first woman on the Military Affairs Committee. When asked the secret of her success, Kahn replied: “Sex appeal.” She lost in 1936 when a Democratic wave led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt swept the elections.
In 1925, 50-year-old Mary T. Norton of New Jersey became the first female Democrat in the House. Known as “Battling Mary,” she championed working people. As chair of the Labor Committee, she led passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The act established the 40-hour week and outlawed child labor. Norton stepped down in 1951.
Women, meanwhile, were also advancing in the Senate. Technically, the first female senator was Democrat Rebecca Latimer Felton, an 87-year-old women’s rights activist and white supremacist from Georgia. But she only served one day in October of 1922 to temporarily fill the vacancy of a senator who had died.
The first elected female senator was Hattie Caraway, a 53-year-old Arkansas Democrat whom state party leaders picked to take the seat of her husband after he died in 1931. Caraway won the Senate seat on her own in 1932 after campaigning through Arkansas with supporter Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana in what was known as the “Hattie and Huey” tour.
Though known as “Silent Hattie” because she rarely spoke on the Senate floor, Caraway in 1933 became the first woman to chair a Senate committee. She also was the first woman in Congress to co-sponsor the Equal Rights Amendment. But she joined other Southern senators to oppose anti-lynching laws and to support the poll tax. She was defeated in 1944 by J. William Fulbright.
In 1949, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine became the first woman to serve in both the Senate and the House. Smith, a Republican, first won election to the House in 1940 at age 42. One of her most memorable moments came in the Senate on June 1, 1950, when she denounced the red-baiting tactics of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Smith served until losing reelection in 1972.
Despite these gains women remained a “distinct minority” in Congress, according to House historians. By 1962 women were fewer than 4 percent of all national lawmakers. The picture didn’t change much until the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, when 27 women were elected to Congress. The gain was fueled in large part by the controversy over Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment accusations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Those gains were swamped by Tuesday’s results. The more than 100 women serving in the House will far exceed the previous high of 85 set in 2016, according to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. Women also will hold 23 of the 100 Senate seats, tying a record.
Amid the celebrations, women might want to raise a glass to Jeannette Rankin, who said after her election in 1916: “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”
Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal and a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va.
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