The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a vote on entering World War I approached, the only woman in Congress faced an agonizing choice

Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, in 1917. (Library of Congress)

Jeannette Rankin had been weeping on and off for three days. By April 6, 1917, she had no tears left.

The pressure on her was enormous. She was the first woman to be elected to Congress — to any national legislature in the world, in fact — and she had taken her seat just four days earlier on April 2. That same day, President Woodrow Wilson had asked for a declaration of war against Germany. He wanted America to join the Great War in Europe. “The world,” he said, “must be made safe for democracy.”

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Rankin was a 36-year-old Republican from Montana. She had campaigned against the political clout of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., owned by the Rockefellers. Montanans talked about their politicians wearing “the copper collar.” She wanted to go to Washington to work for reforms for mothers, children and workers. But her principal cause was getting women nationwide the vote, as they had in Montana and 10 other states.

Yet the war had become the great question of early 1917. Back home in Montana, there was considerable opposition to getting in. Westerners were afraid they were being asked to bail out Wall Street, which had invested heavily in the British and French. Rankin received a torrent of letters and telegrams asking her to oppose the war. And she understood full well that she represented more than Montana; in a sense she stood in for all American women, and would be setting a precedent for those women who would follow her.

The U.S. joined the Great War 100 years ago. America and warfare were never the same.

Eastern leaders of the suffrage movement looked at her warily. She was an upstart, independent, strong-willed. Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the most important suffrage organization, met her in New York in early March and told her in no uncertain terms that the women of America must support Wilson if he took the country to war. To oppose him would sabotage the suffrage cause.

But Rankin took a dim view of war, and of the military. Some of that she inherited from her father, a prosperous rancher whose dealings with the Army during the last flare-ups of the Indian wars had left him distinctly unimpressed. And some of it had to do with her sense that women could bring a better sensibility to politics and to international relations. She wasn’t an isolationist; she thought America could do good in the world. But she didn’t think sending in the Marines was the best way to go about it.

Rep. Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican and a committed pacifist, was the only Congress member to vote against entering both World War I and World War II. (Video: United States Capitol)

So there was her dilemma.

“You are our hope when the man-world is mad for war,” Mrs. George Schuettinger, of Brooklyn, wrote to her on April 2.

“Prompted by patriotic American motives, I protest against nation participating in European war,” read a telegram from Kurt Vonnegut of Indianapolis, whose son wrote the antiwar novel “Slaughterhouse Five” a generation later.

The Senate passed the war resolution on April 4, with six votes against. The House took up the measure the next day. Rankin stayed at her new apartment until late in the afternoon, agonizing over the vote. Alice Paul, head of the National Woman’s Party, sat with her. She told Rankin that she had an obligation as the first woman in Congress to give voice to her woman’s conscience. It would be a tragedy, Paul said, to vote for war.

In the evening Rankin appeared at the Capitol. The debate was dragging on, and April 5 became April 6. At 3 a.m., the roll was called. “Miss Rankin was evidently under great mental distress,” the New York Times reported. “Her appearance was that of a woman on the verge of a breakdown.”

Would she betray her cause by voting against war? Or would she betray her conscience by voting in favor?

She remained silent, and the clerk moved on. Rep. Joseph Cannon, the former Republican House speaker, came up to her and told her to vote as her conscience dictated. “You represent the womanhood of the country,” he said.

The clerk went through the roll again. “Miss Rankin,” he called out twice.

She stood, clasped the back of the seat in front of her. “I want to stand by my country — but I cannot vote for war,” she said. Does that, the clerk asked, mean no? She nodded, dry-eyed, and sat down.

Rankin was one of 50 members who voted against war, but hers was the vote everyone remembered. Catt was furious. It ruined Rankin’s chances of reelection in 1918.

Women finally got the vote nationwide in 1920. Rankin worked for peace throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and then won a second term to Congress in 1940.

On Dec. 8, 1941, she was the only member of either chamber to vote against war with Japan. She later said she regretted neither vote.

In 1968, she led a women’s march on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. Her followers called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. She didn’t care for the name; she thought it was too militaristic.