Jeannette Rankin Elected as the First Woman to Serve in US Congress

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives and the first female member of the Congress sometimes referred to as the Lady of the House.

On November 7, 1916 she was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana, becoming the first female member of Congress. The Nineteenth Amendment (which gave women the right to vote everywhere in the United States) was not ratified until 1920; therefore, during Rankin's first term in Congress (1917–1919), many women throughout the country did not have the right to vote, though they did in her home state of Montana.

On April 6, 1917, only four days into her term, the House voted on the resolution to enter World War I. Rankin cast one of 50 votes against the resolution, earning her immediate vilification by the press. Suffrage groups canceled her speaking engagements. Despite her vote against entering the war, she devoted herself to selling Liberty Bonds and voted for the military draft.

In 1918, she ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination to represent Montana in the United States Senate. She then ran an independent candidacy, which also failed.[3] Her term as Representative ended early in 1919. For the next two decades, she worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. for various causes.

In 1918, and again in 1919, she introduced legislation to provide state and federal funds for health clinics, midwife education, and visiting nurse programs in an effort to reduce the nation's infant mortality. While serving as a field secretary for the National Consumers' League, she campaigned for legislation to promote maternal and child health care. As a lobbyist, Rankin argued for passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, an infant and maternal health bill which was the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children. The legislation, however, was not enacted until 1921 and was repealed just eight years later.

She was founding Vice-President of the American Civil Liberties Union and a founding member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

In 1940, Rankin was again elected to Congress, this time on an anti-war platform. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, she once again voted against entering a World War, the only member of Congress to do so, saying "As a woman, I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else. It is not necessary. I vote NO." Montana Republican leaders demanded that Rankin change her vote, but she refused. However she did not vote against declaring war on Germany and Italy following their declaration of war on the U.S. Instead, she voted merely Present.

By 1942, Rankin's antiwar stance had become so unpopular that she did not seek re-election. During the remainder of her life, she traveled to India seven times and was a devotee of Gandhian principles of non-violence and self-determination.

As war in Europe loomed, Rankin turned her attention to work for peace, and in 1916, ran for one of the two seats in Congress from Montana as a Republican. Her brother served as campaign manager and helped finance the campaign. Jeannette Rankin won, though the papers first reported that she lost the election -- and Jeannette Rankin thus became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, and the first woman elected to a national legislature in any western democracy.

Rankin used her fame and notoriety in this "famous first" position to work for peace and women's rights and against child labor, and to write a weekly newspaper column.

Only four days after taking office, Jeannette Rankin made history in yet another way: she voted against U.S. entry into World War I. She violated protocol by speaking during the roll call before casting her vote, announcing "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war." Some of her colleagues in NAWSA -- notably Carrie Chapman Catt -- criticized her vote as opening the suffrage cause to criticism as impractical and sentimental.

Rankin did vote, later in her term, for several pro-war measures, as well as working for the political reforms including civil liberties, suffrage, birth control, equal pay and child welfare. In 1917, she opened the congressional debate on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which passed the House in 1917 and the Senate in 1918, to become the 19th Amendment after it was ratified by the states.

But Rankin's first anti-war vote sealed her political fate. When she was gerrymandered out of her district, she ran for the Senate, lost the primary, launched a third party race, and lost overwhelmingly.

After the war ended, Rankin continued to work for peace through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and also began work for the National Consumers' League. She worked, at the same time, on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union.

After a brief return to Montana to help her brother run -- unsuccessfully -- for the Senate, she moved to a farm in Georgia. She returned to Montana every summer, her legal residence.