Quote by History's Women: 1st Women: Jeannette Rankin – The Legislator Who Voted Against War - Twice

History's Women: 1st Women: Jeannette Rankin – The Legislator Who Voted Against War - TwiceJeannette Rankin
The Legislator Who Voted Against War – Twice
1880–1973 A.D.

When Congress was set to declare war against Germany in 1917 there were 50 votes against it, and one of them was from Miss Jeannette Rankin. She was the first woman elected to Congress, she was an avid woman’s suffrage advocate, and a reform minded pacifist. Then some 20 years later it was a similar situation as Congress again voted to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Miss Rankin was again in the House. As before she voted no but this time she was alone in her vote, and after the tragedy of a national attack when patriotic fervor was high, she experienced national opposition. Yet for a Montana ranch girl, Miss Rankin had deep emotions about her belief in many reforms, and especially world peace and she was ready to follow them despite opposition.

Born in June 1880 in Missoula, Montana, Jeannette was the oldest of seven children, her father a Canadian immigrant who worked as a builder, architect, logger, craftsman, and part-time rancher. Considered prosperous by local standards, he married a local teacher, Olive Pickering, in 1879.

The family had both a house in town with modern conveniences, as well as a ranch, and Jeannette and her siblings were raised in an atmosphere of personal responsibility and self sufficiency. Jeannette grew up as a child of her time and place, as she learned to chop wood, build fires, clear brush and care for animals. In fact, there was a family story that when a horse was injured she grabbed a needle and thread to stitch up the gash.

Though intelligent and intellectually bright, Jeannette’s school record was mediocre as she lacked a life direction. After high school, she enrolled in the first freshman class at the University of Montana and graduated with a degree in biology in 1902. Though she taught school briefly, she then returned home to assist her mother, especially when her father died in 1904.

At that time Jeannette then widened her horizons as she visited her brother, a Harvard University law student, where she saw firsthand big city crime, poverty and corruption, particularly in the slums. In fact these new realizations were instrumental in forming her desires for reform.

In 1908 to further her new interests, Miss Rankin worked for a few months in a San Francisco settlement house where she was deeply touched by the plights of the impoverished women. She furthered her education as she enrolled in a New York school where among the instructors was Booker T. Washington. Along with her studies of legal and social issues she also worked with local deaf children. She graduated as a social worker in 1909 and then returned to the west coast to assist with various children’s charities in Spokane, Washington. A biographer related how the experience was difficult for her and that “Miss Rankin began to see that reform would not come from within the institutions but by influencing the laws which governed them.”

At this time Jeannette became an advocate for woman’s suffrage—women voting—and carried out her interest by assisting in advancing the cause politically. Part of this effort meant posting public notices about the subject—in one case she boldly entered a barber shop and asked to mount a poster in the front window.

When woman’s suffrage legislation was introduced in the Montana legislature Jeannette entered the process when on February 1, 1911, she became the first woman to address the state legislature. The event was so momentous that amidst the crowded galleries and to improve the atmosphere for the women there was issued a ban on smoking, spitting, and swearing. In her address Miss Rankin urged the legislators to approve the issue that would send the suffrage issue to a popular vote.

Though the measure was not approved Jeannette had attracted notice as she became a speaker in a campaign for the issue. Jeannette was popular with working class voters but not so much with local political bosses. Then in November 1914, the issue was approved and Montana became the 10th state to give women the right to vote, and the first state to approve it on a state wide referendum.

Since World War I had broken out in Europe, Jeannette saw the value of women voting since she believed that female citizens should have a vote on whether to send their sons, husbands and brothers to war.

In the spring of 1916 Jeannette ran for Congress, and after speaking to many audiences she won in November, defeating seven men in the primary. As it turned out her election attracted nationwide interest, including (it seems) several marriage proposals.

As it turned out, Congress was called to a special section by President Woodrow Wilson in April 1917 to pass a declaration of war against Germany. It was also the time when she was to be sworn in. As Jeannette entered the House as the special session began, she was met by applause. Her biographer put it this way: “Jeannette was neither the mannish, overbearing woman some expected her to be…She was attractive, feminine, friendly, straight forward, well informed and most of all a woman of conviction who was opposed to war.”

When the war resolution finally came to a vote early on April 6 Miss Rankin was one of 50 who voted no. “I wish to stand for my country,” she said, “But I cannot vote for war.”

When Jeannette’s term ended in March 1919, it was just a few months after the end of the war and some months before the national Woman’s Suffrage Amendment was passed. At that time Miss Rankin joined others to travel to Switzerland to work with former opponents to eventually form the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. By 1925 she was an officer in the group as she continued to work to promote the cause of peace.

About this time she also began to spend more time at her farm near Athens, Georgia and over the next few years she was active in peace organizations. She also frequently spent time in Montana to retain local connections.

By 1940 as war was beginning in Europe, Jeannette filed for a Montana Congressional seat and that November she was elected by a large margin to assume office in early 1941. Then after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and President Roosevelt sought a war declaration against Japan, Jeannette was ready but this time she was alone in her opposition.

With her negative vote, she faced almost immediate retaliation. At one point, according to her biographer, “She escaped to a telephone booth where she dialed the Capitol switchboard for help and was rescued by Capitol police who escorted her to her office and stood guard outside.” The opposition continued, but eventually she completed her term and quietly left public life. She did not seek re-election and returned to Montana.

In 1946 Miss Rankin traveled widely, including a trip to India where she hoped to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian independence activist. To try to reach him, she set out alone driving herself around the Indian countryside, visiting and becoming acquainted with local people as she traveled. As it turned out Gandhi was assassinated before she could reach him but she later went on to visit other Asian, African and South American countries.

When the Vietnam War became a national issue in the 1960s, Jeannette again became a public figure as she began to speak out against the war. Then on Jan. 15, 1968 Miss Rankin was one of many who traveled to Washington to have an anti-war march and a rally to present a petition to the Montana Senator.

Miss Rankin spent her remaining years dividing her time between her Georgia home and Montana. She passed away in 1973 but had already received various honors. In 1972 she was named as the first member of the Susan B. Anthony Hall of Fame where she was described as the “world’s outstanding living feminist.”


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

Rankin Foundation

Quote by History's Women: 1st Women: Jeannette Rankin – The Legislator Who Voted Against War - Twice