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Jeannette Rankin The First of the Fairest

(Second in a series of American women who made a difference)

In November of 1916, a short and spirited woman by the name of Jeannette Rankin accomplished the unthinkable. She ran against six men from the state of Montana, and became the first woman to win a seat in Congress. She also became the first woman to be elected to a national legislature in any Western democracy. She said she knew women would stand with her, and she “was very conscious of her responsibility”. She further said: “I will not only represent the women of Montana, but also the women of the country, and I have plenty of work cut out for me.”

Born in 1880, she joined the fight for women’s right to vote at the age of 30. When Montana women received the right to vote in 1914, Rankin decided to run for Congress. She took her seat in the House on April 2, 1917.

Even women did not accept her. Congressional wives feared she would “have designs on their men”. There were no women’s bathrooms, there had never been a need for them. The worst came four days after she was sworn in. Rankin made the extremely unpopular decision to vote against America’s entry into WWI. The vote was 373-50. It was customary to vote without comment, but she broke with tradition, and said: “I want to stand behind my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

During her two years in congress she fought for many issues. Among them were women’s rights, birth control, equal pay, and child welfare. In 1919 she proudly introduced the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, giving women the right to vote. It was ratified and became the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Extremely pleased she said this about the amendment: “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

Her victory in getting the 19th amendment passed could not overcome voter’s displeasure that she had voted against the war. When she ran for the Senate the next year, she was soundly defeated. For the next two decades she worked for peace through the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the National Conference for the Prevention of War. She often said about war: “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.”

In 1940, Rankin was again elected to Congress. Her slogan became; “Prepare to the limit for defense, keep our men out of Europe”.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked congress to declare war. Rankin’s was the sole dissenting vote. She said: “As a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send someone else.” She was booed angrily by the galley and was forced to hide in a phone booth until capitol police escorted her safely out. Jeanette Rankin was the only member of congress to vote against both world wars.

She never ran for public office again, but when she was 88 years old and the United States was sending soldiers to Vietnam, she led 5000 women, all dressed in black, in a silent protest march on Washington.

Before Jeannette Rankin passed away at 92 years of age, she said: “If I had my life to live over, I’d do it all the same, but this time I’d be nastier.”

James Turnage
Columnist-The Guardian Express