Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, gained notoriety through the accidents of history. A confirmed pacifist, her two widely separated terms in the House put her in the position of voting against U.S. participation in both World War I (April 6, 1917) and World War II (December 8, 1941). In the latter case Rankin was the sole vote against declaring war on Japan in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
When Rankin voted against declaring war on Germany earlier that spring of 1917, she had quietly stated, “I cannot vote for war,” a stand that was popular in Montana. But on December 7, 1917, the House prepared to vote on H.J. Res 169, “declaring that a state of war exists between the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Government and the Government and the people of the United States and making provision to prosecute the same.” And Rankin would approach it differently than both the April vote and when confronted with the same circumstances almost exactly 24 years later.
President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress to declare war against Austria-Hungary on December 4, in part to discourage Italy from negotiating a separate peace after its disastrous defeat at Caporetto earlier in the year. Rankin, along with her mother, had been stricken with ptomaine poisoning and was recovering at home. When the House debate approached a vote, she made her way to the House Floor. Toward the close of the debate, the Republican floor manager recognized her to general applause.
When Rankin marched into the well (one reporter wrote she “tripped down the aisle”), many expected her to announce her opposition to the resolution. She began her remarks strongly and confidently, in stark contrast to her almost timid announcement of her vote the previous April.
Mr. Chairman, I still believe that war is a stupid and futile way of attempting to settle international difficulties. I believe that war can be avoided and will be avoided when the people, the men and women in America, as well as in Germany, have the controlling voice in their Government.
But Rankin concluded her remarks with a surprising twist, to the delight of her colleagues.
The vote we are now to cast is not a vote on a declaration of war. If it were, I should vote against it. This is a vote on a mere technicality in the prosecution of a war already declared. I shall vote for this, as I voted for money and for men.
Amidst the applause of other Members, the floor leader asked for the vote. The House passed the declaration of war by a vote of 365 to 1. The sole opposing vote was from Meyer London, a Socialist from New York. But Jeannette Rankin’s name appeared in the ranks of the yea votes.
Sources: Congressional Record, 65th Cong., 1st sess., 7 December 1917; The Sun, 8 December 1917; New York Times, 8 December 1917; Chicago Daily Tribune, 8 December 1917.Follow @USHouseHistory