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The vote that ended Jeannette Rankin's career

The vote that ended Jeannette Rankin's career
© Library of Congress

A day after Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Jeannette Rankin found herself in a familiar situation. 

Much like President Woodrow Wilson did nearly 25 years earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt was appealing to a joint session of Congress to declare war. And just as she had done nearly 25 years earlier, Rankin voted “no.”

But unlike 1917, when 56 members of Congress — including Rankin — opposed U.S. involvement in World War I, the representative from Montana’s 1st Congressional District was alone. 

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The final vote to declare war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, was 388-1. Rankin was now a pariah, both in Washington and in her home state. 

“Montana is 100 percent against you,” her brother Wellington Rankin telegraphed after the vote.

The attack on Pearl Harbor had rattled the country so violently that even the most isolationist-minded lawmakers threw their support behind the war. Rankin, who became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916 and served two terms in the House across a 27-year period, did not run for reelection after that.

“That vote pretty much ended her political career right then and there,” Matt Wasniewski, the historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, said in an interview. “[Pearl Harbor] is such a dramatic, devastating attack that it shifted public opinion across the board, even in Montana, and she didn’t change with it.”

Rankin was not an isolationist like many of the members who had been reluctant to go to war. But she was a devoted pacifist, an ideology that guided her political career and earned her the distinction of being the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in both World War I and World War II. 

The drums of war were beat loudly in 1915, when a German U-boat sank the British ocean liner Lusitania. The threat of an alliance between Germany and Mexico had fueled the sense among many Americans that the U.S. policy of neutrality in the Great War was unsustainable. 

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But across many Western states, the appetite for foreign conflict was more subdued. It was at that moment that Montana sent Rankin, a well-known suffragist who had made clear during her campaign her opposition to potential U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, to Washington.

Her arrival in D.C. was treated as an oddity by a Washington press corps that had never before covered a woman in federal office. One March 4, 1917, headline from The Washington Post proclaimed: “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.”

“She ends up getting treated like the society page would have written about a debutante or something like that,” Wasniewski, the House historian, said. “The newspapers just don’t have a language for her as a politician.”

On April 2, 1917, Rankin was formally sworn into office. Four days later, on April 6, she stood by her campaign trail rhetoric and voted against a declaration of war with Germany. During the roll-call vote — and in violation of House rules — she stood up from her seat and said: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

She was not alone. Forty-nine other representatives and six senators voted “no” to the declaration of war. But Rankin’s vote, in particular, drew criticism from some in the press. The Helena Independent newspaper back in Montana dubbed her “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists.” Some in the suffrage movement condemned the vote, accusing Rankin of weakening their cause. 

“I think in this instance in 1917, she was acutely aware that this could cause problems in terms of her relationships with the suffrage movement,” Wasniewski said. “As the first woman in Congress, the suffrage leaders were concerned that if she cast her vote ‘no’ that that would have a negative impact on their campaign.”

But Wasniewski said that, overall, Rankin’s vote was received well in Montana, a state that had a large population of people with German roots. Her decision was also in line not only with her personal ideology, but with her campaign pledge to oppose foreign war.

Jodie Foley, the Montana state archivist, said that, for Rankin, pacifism was part and parcel of the women’s movement. 

“I think for her, she so solidly believed that women were going to be the one to bring peace, that she had to be that voice,” Foley said. “She had to be that voice in ’17 that said: ‘As a woman I cannot go to war and I’m not going to send anyone else to war. I want to support my country, but I have to vote my conscience.’ ”

“There’s kind of one major line throughout her life and it is that idea of peace and pacifism but it’s so inextricably linked with suffrage, that they both define her,” Foley added.

Rankin ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in 1918, narrowly losing a three-way Republican primary. She would not return to Washington as an elected official again until 1941, the same year the U.S. declared war on Japan. 

For the voters who elected her to a second term in the House, Rankin’s vote against war with Japan should not have come as a surprise, Foley said. After all, Rankin had a record of opposing war, and she had campaigned on a promise of peace. 

“It was always part of her rhetoric — peace was,” Foley said. “There was always a certain amount of disingenuousness to me when people screamed about her vote, because this is who she was.”

Despite the fierce blowback to her 1941 vote against war, Rankin did not vanish from the public discourse. She spoke out against the Korean War that followed the end of World War II. And at the height of the anti-war movement of the 1960s, she led a group of 5,000 — dubbed the Jeannette Rankin Brigade — in a march protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Rankin died in 1973 at the age of 92. At the time, she was batting around the idea of another congressional campaign.