The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The only U.S. politician to vote against war with Japan 75 years ago was this remarkable woman

Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first female member of Congress who voted against America’s entry into World War II, appeared before the House Naval Affairs Committee on Feb. 2, 1940, in opposition to the $655,000,000 naval expansion program. (AP Photo)

The day after Japan launched its brazen, epoch-defining assault on Pearl Harbor, American legislators voted for war almost unanimously. There was only one congressional dissenter: Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican and a committed pacifist who had also voted against World War I.

When her turn came on Dec. 8, 1941, Rankin stood amid a chorus of boos and hisses and said: “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.” The resolution passed 388 to 1.

After the vote, she had to briefly hide in a phone booth inside a cloakroom in the House out of fear of physical assault by outraged visitors to the Capitol.

Rankin's act of defiance is a largely forgotten footnote in the epic drama that followed: Three days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States and American troops would enter the conflict on multiple fronts in Europe and the Pacific. Rankin herself, aware that the political winds were against her, opted not to run for reelection in 1942.

It would be a mistake, though, to discount her legacy. After all, Rankin was the first woman to be elected to a congressional seat. And unlike those associated with America First, an isolationist movement that flirted with European fascism, Rankin's opposition to war was rooted in pacifism and progressive politics.

Born in 1880 into a middle-class family in Missoula, Mont., she cut her teeth doing social work in San Francisco and later earned a master's degree from Columbia University in New York. A staunch suffragist and opponent of large American mining firms, she won election in 1916, at a time when only a few states allowed women the right to vote.

Rankin didn't consider women to just be equal to men, but better and more attuned to the public good.

“Babies are dying from cold and hunger,” she once said in a congressional speech, as recounted by historian Josh Zeitz. “Soldiers have died for lack of a woolen shirt. Might it not be that the men who have spent their lives thinking in terms of commercial profit find it hard to adjust themselves to thinking in terms of human needs? Might it not be that a great force that has always been thinking in terms of human needs, and that always will think in terms of human needs, has not been mobilized? Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the nation at this time?”

In her first month in office in 1917, she was one of 50 legislators to vote in the losing minority against President Woodow Wilson's call to enter World War I. She left office in 1919, moved to a farm in Georgia and spent her time touring the country, speaking on behalf of women's rights.

“It was only after 22 years had gone by, when the memories of World War I had been soured by the mess that followed, that she was able to return to Congress [in 1940]," wrote my colleague Will Englund.

She did so while beating notorious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer Jakob Thorkelson in Montana's Republican primary. But her time in office was once more short-lived. After she cast her vote against war, her brother and benefactor, Wellington, wired her from their home state: “Montana is 100 percent against you.”

According to the historian for the House of Representatives, she confessed to her friends that she had “nothing left but my integrity.”

Englund, an editor for The Washington Post's foreign desk whose forthcoming book “March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution” features the long history of Rankin's pacifism, chronicles the last years of her life before she died in 1973 at the age of 93:

She moved to a dirt-floor house in Georgia, kept up her love for cars, always made sure to dress well, and in later years wore an ash-blond wig. In 1968, at the age of 87, she led a march of several thousand women on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. They called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
“We’ve done all the damage we can possibly do in Vietnam,” she told the New York Times. “You can’t settle disputes by shooting nice young men.”

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