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.
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.” …