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1917 Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

The Lady from Montana

Among those sitting rapt in the Capitol building on April 6 as President Woodrow Wilson requested a declaration of war from Congress was Jeannette Pickering Rankin, representative from Montana. Shortly after taking her seat as the first woman member of the United States Congress, Rankin faced the central decision of her life. At a time when most American women had still not achieved the vote, Montana’s new women voters had sent one of their own to Washington. There, at three in the morning on the day of the House vote, the “lady from Montana” voted against the President’s request, saying, “I want to stand for my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

Although forty-nine congressmen also came out against a declaration of war, the pacifist Rankin made a particularly exotic target for the press. “Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Missoula,” was all she had told the Congressional Directory , causing news stories about her modesty and speculation about her age. Rankin’s own brother had urged her to make “a man’s vote” in support of the President. Rankin, however, was sure the people back home were with her.

They weren’t entirely. After her term in the House, she tried for the U.S. Senate and lost. Rankin then lobbied restlessly for world-peace organizations throughout the twenties and thirties. By campaigning for peace and preparedness, and pledging to “keep our men out of Europe,” she returned to Congress in 1941 in time for the century’s second great cataclysm. The destruction at Pearl Harbor led to Rankin’s second famous vote against war. She found herself not only in the minority this time but alone. “I voted against it because it was war,” she later explained of her solitary dissent.

The people of Montana again turned her out in 1942, but Rankin continued her single-minded work against armed global conflict and, during the Vietnam era, enjoyed something of a revival. Her Jeannette Rankin Brigade, an impressive collection of hippies, students, and professors under her nominal leadership, descended massively on Washington to protest yet another war. After threatening to run once more for Congress “to have somebody to vote for,” Jeannette Rankin died in 1973 at the age of ninety-two.

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