100 years ago, Jeannette Rankin cast the first vote by a woman in Congress

Jeannette Rankin first day in Congress

Jeannette Rankin leaves for Congress after a welcoming ceremony at suffrage headquarters in Washington, D.C. She was expected to lead the effort for woman suffrage by federal amendment. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Copyright 2017

In April 1917, the nation’s first congresswoman took her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives amid much fanfare. Soon, however, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany and enter World War I. Never had a woman cast a vote in Congress. For Rankin, the “war vote” held much more significance. Expectations were high that she would carry the banner for a federal amendment to the Constitution to secure women’s right to vote. Either way, she voted on the war, her decision would carry substantial political implications.

The following excerpts come from “One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story.”

By Kevin S. Giles

The city shook with war news. President Wilson entered the joint session at 8:37 p.m. to a prolonged welcome. When the applause died, he rose to the podium and spoke of “the spirit of ruthless brutality” that war would bring. He recalled that he had, in his message to Congress on February 26, favored a foreign policy of “armed neutrality.” That was no longer practical, he said, because the German government now regarded American merchant ships as pirates. Wilson had decided that Germany’s reckless aggression would continue unless the United States raised a military to help the Allies. “We have no quarrel with the German people,” he said, “but only with their aggressive rulers.” The Prussian autocracy had filled the United States with spies, Wilson said, who had tried to persuade Mexico to turn against her northern neighbor. The United States would fight a war not only for itself but for the German people and all nations big and small. His speech, recorded as “House Document Number One” in the new Congress, argued that aggressive actions by the German government amounted to war against the United States. “We must make the world safe for democracy!” he implored to thundering ovation. Wilson warned of “many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us.”

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot

 

Having imparted a request for war, the president left the Capitol at 9:11 p.m. for the White House. There, in the Cabinet Room, he sat “silent and pale” with his secretary, J.P. Tumulty, for a long time. Finally, Wilson said: “Think what it was they were applauding. My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.” …

It was three hours past midnight on Good Friday. In minutes, the resolution would come to the House floor. From their lair in the press gallery, reporters watched America’s first woman in Congress alternately bow her head and raise her eyes as if in search of advice from a higher power. How would Jeannette Rankin vote?

One Woman Against War, a new biography of Jeannette Rankin

Montanans elected Jeannette Rankin to the US House in 1916. She was the first-ever woman elected to Congress. Painting by Sharon Sprung.

In those final moments before the roll call, she thought of the many arguments of the past three days. Everyone except the pacifists urged her to vote for war. She couldn’t ignore the pleas of her many suffrage sisters who had begged her not to jeopardize the chances of a federal suffrage amendment with an unpopular vote. Rankin would say later that to her, war seemed futile, absurd and criminal. It slaughtered young men and ignored, she would argue, the welfare of women and children. She had no doubt that Congress was being asked to vote for a commercial war — that none of the idealistic hopes that Wilson expounded would be realized.

Finally, at nearly three in the morning, the reading clerk began the roll call. “It was so quiet in the gallery and on the floor it seemed you could hear the workings of a man’s conscience,” her secretary, Belle Fligelman, would remember.

“Rankin?” called the clerk. She didn’t answer. A great silence settled on the room.      “Rankin?” he asked again. Still she failed to respond. She stared again at the ceiling, her face drawn with despair. As the clerk resumed his roll call, the galleries hummed. Was the Lady from Montana going to wait for the second roll call to cast her vote? That procedure was reserved for members of Congress not seated for the first roll call. Rankin’s fellow lawmakers turned in their chairs and stared at her, mystified. Perhaps she was too new to understand all the rules.

Representative “Uncle Joe” Cannon of Illinois entered the chamber after the first roll call and, after being told that Rankin hadn’t voted, went to her. She lifted her expectant eyes. “Little woman,” he reportedly told her, “you cannot afford not to vote. You represent the womanhood of the country in the American Congress. I shall not advise you how to vote, but you should vote one way or the other, as your conscience dictates.”

Nothing was more frightening to Rankin than the prospect of stalling suffrage for American women. Worse yet, the idea that she would be sending American sons to war made her blood run cold. She felt gentle pressure on her shoulder and looked into the eyes of her friend and comrade in the struggle for suffrage, the incomparable Quaker pacifist Alice Paul. “Who wants the vote at this price?” Paul asked.

Reading clerk Patrick J. Haltigan began the second roll call, this time getting to “Rankin” much faster. She hesitated. Then she rose from her chair to speak the thirteen words for which she would be most remembered: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Simple words, spoken quietly enough that many people in the chamber didn’t hear her, but fodder nonetheless for a storm of national criticism from everyone convinced that women were unfit to hold public office. For a moment, she remained standing to cries of “Vote! Vote!” Then she sank back in her chair with the words, “I vote no.” They were inaudible to almost everyone.

A few people in the gallery applauded. Then a hush settled over the great hall. Rankin had violated a precedent, as old as the nation, that forbade House comments during roll call. That was a privilege reserved for senators.

She bowed her head until the roll call was finished. Forty-nine of her colleagues voted with her but the outcome was clear. In precisely twelve minutes the US House of Representatives had voted to declare war on Germany. Thus, thirty-two Republicans, sixteen Democrats, one Prohibitionist and one Socialist had voted no. Rankin hurried out of the House. For the first time in the nation’s history, a woman had participated in a referendum on war. She consoled herself that the first vote cast by a woman in the US Congress was a vote for peace. Little did she know how that single vote, in good ways and in bad, would define her life.

So many people would know Jeannette Rankin as a champion for peace and justice. Others would remember her as a historical oddity and condemn her for treason. Yet, something new and different had happened. Congress had heard the first words ever spoken by a woman from the floor in either chamber. Like the breaking of dawn that was soon to come in Washington, it was a new day for American women.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)