This wasn’t how Jeannette Rankin envisioned her first speech in the House. Surely, Rankin—who had spent her entire adult life fighting for equal rights before becoming the first woman elected to Congress—would use her inaugural address to champion the issue of women’s suffrage when the moment arose. But recent events in her Montana district forced her to speak up sooner than she had planned.
A little more than four months into her term, Rankin had tried to hew to the tradition of freshmen Members being seen but not heard—of learning how things worked on the Hill before stepping out of the shadows and into the policy fights.
But Rankin was no ordinary newcomer. Her election signaled a paradigm shift in American politics and there was little possibility she’d ever truly avoid the spotlight. The press took an outsized interest in everything from her policy agenda to her personal tastes and habits of dress. Her vote against U.S. intervention in World War I—at odds with many of the suffrage movement’s leaders—made front page news.
Still, she went about learning the House’s institutional folkways, gaining quiet currency with colleagues, and mastering the details of their committee work. She sought counsel from more experienced Members, including Massachusetts’s James Gallivan and her Montana colleague, John Evans. She hired a large staff, in part to handle the enormous volume of mail she received from a public at turns curious, expectant, demanding. She navigated the disorienting hallways of the Capitol, finding the women’s restroom placed at an inconvenient remove from the chamber. And she immersed herself in the issues, studying women’s employment in federal jobs and planning to spearhead a constitutional amendment extending the franchise to all women.
But then events back home in Montana took an awful turn.
To meet the new wartime demand for metal, the mines around Butte in the state’s mountainous western reaches had kicked into round-the-clock production. At the time there was no such thing as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and few if any workplace protections. The city’s estimated 15,000 miners worked day and night while safety and operating conditions eroded. Disaster struck on June 8, 1917, as a torrential fire swept through the Speculator copper mine in the north hills overlooking Butte. One hundred sixty eight men perished. Most suffocated to death in the thick smoke and noxious fumes, in what remains the worst hard-rock mining accident in U.S. history.
Afterward miners went on strike to protest their hazardous working conditions. The Speculator’s owner, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, had effectively ended the once-strong union presence in Butte through an employee registration system that eliminated workers sympathetic to the cause of organized labor. The striking miners demanded the right to unionize and a safe workplace. The company was determined to resist their efforts even as production lagged.
Tensions were exacerbated by the presence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Butte. IWW members, or Wobblies as they were popularly known throughout the West, aimed to organize miners, lumberjacks, factory workers, and itinerant farmworkers into “One Big Union,” designed to bring together workers around the world. Companies, landowners, and local authorities from Spokane, Washington, to San Diego, California, regarded the IWW as a threat because of the organization’s militant commitment to international socialism and direct action, including sabotage and strikes. Derided as “worse than the Germans” during the Great War, IWW members were frequently jailed, beaten, or physically ejected from towns. In early August, vigilantes, suspected to be Anaconda henchmen, kidnapped veteran IWW organizer Frank Little, roped him to the back of a car, dragged him through the streets of Butte, and hung his broken, bullet-riddled body from a train trestle.
Appalled by the violence and concerned about the dwindling copper output (Butte supplied one-fifth of the country’s military-grade copper), Rankin felt compelled to speak out. As word leaked to the press that the Montanan would deliver her first “set” speech, she kept the topic secret. Looking for a scoop, the Washington Post reported on August 6 (the day before Rankin was scheduled to address the House) that she would focus on the poor working conditions women faced in federal departments.
Three minutes of unbroken applause greeted Rankin when she stepped before a lectern in the well of the House chamber the next day. The correspondent for the New York Tribune reported that she spoke in a calm, self-possessed, “high-pitched but clear voice” that was audible throughout the room. The writer added that she was “simply attired in a white skirt and a Georgette crepe blouse. She wore no hat, as has been her custom.” Women in their summer whites packed the public galleries, while on the open floor below perhaps a third of the seats were filled by Congressmen (most of those who were in town, anyway), accompanied by several young children. Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, who had granted Rankin’s request to speak by allotting 30 minutes (three times what she had requested), presided from the rostrum.
Rankin did not, however, speak about women’s issues. Instead, reacting to the tragedy and violence back home, she called for federal intervention and oversight to redress labor conditions and return western mines to full production capacity. She noted that while President Woodrow Wilson had the power to take over coal mines he had no such authority to nationalize metal mining operations. “At this time copper, a metal essential to the every-day life of people in every part of the civilized world, is a basic necessity in war,” Rankin said. “It is a necessity that we cannot overlook at this time.” The mining crisis threatened the war effort abroad and civil liberties at home, she insisted, warranting such a grant of presidential authority to intervene. “In a crisis of this kind, coming as it does in a time of war, when all of our attention should be centered upon the enemy and not on local difficulties, there should be some effective means by which the Government would be able to protect itself against a decrease in necessary productiveness, and by which the people of each State would be guaranteed the protection provided by the Constitution of the United States.”
To that end, Rankin submitted a resolution (H.J. Res 142) granting President Wilson the wartime power to seize control of copper and other metal mines. She may not have voted for the U.S. to intervene in the war in Europe, but with troops deploying Rankin believed Congress should do no less than provide them all the resources they needed to end the fighting swiftly. As a pacifist, this was her way of supporting the war mobilization effort.
Rankin rendered a less tactful assessment of the copper magnates’ treatment of the miners. She singled out John D. Ryan, head of the Anaconda Company, for special criticism. Ryan, she suggested, supported blacklisting miners who were sympathetic to unions and tacitly endorsed a pervasive culture that discouraged safety oversight. She pointedly noted that Ryan had ignored her inquiries into the mine’s operation that led to the disaster.
Rankin’s criticism of Anaconda and Ryan drew unfriendly responses from colleagues who allied with the companies or who were avowed enemies of the unions. But Rankin stood her ground.
“Did this man who was hanged belong to an organization which declares that it owes allegiance to no government?” interjected Albert Johnson of Washington who demanded recognition to speak—a courtesy that Rankin extended him. Johnson was no friend of labor, particularly the immigrant groups drawn to the IWW. The Washington Congressman often railed on the floor, delivering inflammatory nativist diatribes. In the 1920s, as chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, he authored the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.
“I understand that he belonged to the organization known as the Industrial Workers of the World, if that is what the gentleman has in mind,” Rankin replied.
“Is the lady familiar with the preamble and the basic law of that outfit?” Johnson probed.
Coolly, Rankin pushed the inquiry aside. “Yes; but this is a question of lawlessness,” she noted. “It is not a question of whom they hanged.” Applause arose from the galleries.
An un-sanitized account of the exchange, more sharp than the one that appeared in the Congressional Record, noted that when Rankin alleged that the Anaconda Company had engaged in price gouging and the blacklisting of employees, she’d been interrupted by the numerous cries of “What about the I.W.W.’s?”
“There is not much of that out there,” she replied to no one in particular.
At that point, Representative Johnson reportedly leapt from his seat and went through a litany of alleged Wobbly misdeeds: disregarding local laws, damaging private property, and engaging in acts of political violence. With such a notorious reputation, the Congressman suggested the IWW was in no position to “squeal” when one of their members got hanged “by decent citizens now and then.”
Unfazed, Rankin pressed onward toward her conclusion. At the end, Pennsylvania Congressman Joseph Hampton Moore, who had served under President Theodore Roosevelt as the first chief of the Bureau of Manufactures, posed a series of questions to Rankin whose answers revealed that she’d done her homework. Behind the scenes, the Montanan had tried to persuade several officials in the Wilson administration—the secretaries of labor and war, the attorney general, and even the president himself—to intercede in the mine disputes. Having received no firm answers to her inquiries (one department gauzily encouraged her to use “moral influence” to persuade Ryan “to act for the benefit of the Nation”), she chose to make her position public.
Prolonged applause greeted the end of her speech, and several minutes later, Arizona Congressman Carl Hayden, who hailed from the leading copper producing state, praised Rankin’s “convincing” appeal for federal control and vowed to vote for her resolution. Rankin visited Butte days later, spoke to large crowds, and sought to mediate the dispute, but with little result. Her resolution was referred to the Committee on Mines and Mining but never received a vote. The War Industries Board eventually exercised limited control negotiating disputes between labor and industry—including mining—but its central goal was to preserve the flow of vital war materials.
Given the power the mining interests wielded in the West, Rankin’s speech was perhaps most noteworthy for its political (even personal) bravery. She sensed it would cost her during the next election, as it indeed would in her unsuccessful 1918 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The mining companies will “try to do to me just what they have done to every one who ever tried to oppose them, in and out of Montana,” she candidly told one newspaper of the mining industry. “They own the state. They own the government. They own the press. First, I’ll be roasted from one end of the state to the other. Every newspaper will print my shortcomings, real or fancied, in the largest type in the composing room. All the mud and all the bricks in the state will come hurling in my direction.”
Still, “all the mud and all the bricks” didn’t dissuade the first woman in Congress, a freshman no less, from voting her conscience and standing up for her moral convictions.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (7 August 1917): 5896–5898, 5902; Christian Science Monitor, 7 August 1917; Detroit Free Press, 8 August 1917; Los Angeles Times, 8 August 1917; New York Times, 8 August 1917; New York Tribune, 8 August 1917, 9 August 1917; Washington Post, 6 August 1917; Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, ed. Joseph A. McCartin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); Hannah Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: First Lady in Congress (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs–Merrill Company, Inc., 1974); Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society, 2002); The Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial, Butte, Montana, “History,” http://www.minememorial.org/history/intro.htm (accessed 30 January 2017).Follow @USHouseHistory