This Day in History – March 4th, 1917

Jeannette_Rankin_cph.3b13863Elected by the state of Montana, Jeannette Pickering Rankin (June 11, 1880 – May 18, 1973) became the first female member of the United States House of Representatives, taking office on March 4th, 1917After being elected on November 7th, 1916, she said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last.”

Rankin’s first campaign for the congressional election of 1916 was financed and managed by her brother Wellington D. Rankin, a power in the Montana Republican Party. The campaign involved traveling long distances to reach the large state’s scattered population. Rankin rallied support at train stations, street corners, potluck suppers on ranches, and remote one-room schoolhouses. Rankin won by over 7,500 votes.

During her term in the 65th Congress, women did not have universal suffrage, but many were voting in some form in about forty states, including Montana. “If I am remembered for no other act,” Rankin said, “I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

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Portrait of Rankin in the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Just after her term began the House held a vote on whether to enter World War I. Rankin cast one of fifty votes against the resolution, later saying, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it.” Some considered Rankin’s vote to be a discredit to the suffragist movement and to Rankin’s authority in Congress, but others applauded it, including Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party and Representative Fiorello LaGuardia of New York.

Rankin’s two terms in Congress coincided with U.S. entry into both world wars. A lifelong pacifist, she was one of fifty members of Congress who voted against entry into World War I in 1917, and the only member of Congress who voted against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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