It was only natural that Jeannette Rankin of Montana repeatedly made history on April 2, 1917, the day she was sworn in as the first woman to serve in Congress. By shattering that first gender barrier—taking the Oath of Office— she quickly laid the groundwork for other milestones. That day she also became the first woman to sponsor a bill in Congress (an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for woman suffrage) and later listened as President Woodrow Wilson asked the House and Senate to declare war on Imperial Germany, propelling the U.S. into the First World War.
In a sense, every action Rankin took as a Member of Congress that day was historic. She was, after all, the first woman to hold a seat in the national legislature, and she did it before women had the right to vote nationwide. And yet by attending debate, submitting legislation, serving on committees, and meeting with constituents and supporters, Rankin was merely fulfilling the daily responsibilities of any elected Member of the House of Representatives. By the time she left the Capitol that evening, Rankin’s principles had run headlong into the era’s politics, revealing how ambitions and reality could result in overlapping and competing outcomes in Congress. Her first day in office was simultaneously unprecedented and extraordinarily normal.
Rankin’s day began a block from the White House with a celebratory breakfast in her honor at the Shoreham Hotel. Despite an attempt at unity, the morning event hosted by two of the country’s most powerful woman suffrage groups ended up underscoring the diverse visions of the voting-rights movement.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), headed by the elderly and formidable Carrie Chapman Catt and which campaigned for voting rights using state-by-state operations similar to Rankin’s successful movement in Montana, had originally organized the breakfast at their headquarters. The break-away National Woman’s Party (NWP), however, objected to the exclusive celebration and demanded its leaders be included at the meal, leading to the larger venue at the Shoreham. Led by the more militant Alice Paul, NWP’s younger generation of suffragists favored a national campaign using direct action in support of a constitutional amendment. Since January 1917 and much to Catt’s displeasure, NWP demonstrators had been silently picketing the White House with banners demanding the right to vote.
At the breakfast, Rankin sat at the head table between NAWSA’s Catt and NWP’s Paul. For many in attendance, Rankin was a transcendent political figure and for the moment, at least, her election had brought the two factions together in a show of solidarity that she sought to cement. “I want you to know how much I feel this responsibility,” Rankin said. “There will be many times when I shall make mistakes, and it means a great deal to me to know that I have your encouragement and support.” Rankin’s words notwithstanding, the two groups quickly went their separate ways after breakfast. NAWSA members took Rankin to Capitol Hill in an open touring car at the head of a 25-car motorcade. NWP members left to resume their vigil outside the White House and in front of the Capitol.
On Capitol Hill, Rankin faced another audience—the congressional community and the press. Since news of her election the previous November, interest in her arrival in D.C. had grown to a fevered pitch. With experience lobbying before the Montana legislature and the U.S. Congress, however, Rankin was no stranger to the overtly masculine political culture in the House.
When she entered the chamber, many of her male colleagues graciously welcomed her. Members broke out in applause, applauded again when her name was called in the vote for Speaker, and clapped once more when Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri administered the oath to the Montana delegation.
As her new colleagues introduced themselves, a congressman’s wife in the gallery observed “that she met each one with a . . . frank smile and shook hands cordially and unaffectedly.” Rankin, she said, “was just a sensible young woman going about her business.”
Part of that business would inevitably entail answering constituent mail—and not just from voters in her home district. Rankin immediately became a surrogate representative for women across the country, and they deluged her office with correspondence. Before the year was out, congressional leadership allowed Rankin to bring two additional assistants from Montana and assigned her an extra room simply to process all of her mail.
One of Rankin’s first official acts that day was also perhaps the most unceremonious. Shortly after being sworn in, Rankin dropped H.J. Res. 3, a woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution, into the hopper. It was a simple resolution originally drafted by Susan B. Anthony, a few words that had the potential to change millions of lives: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
That evening Rankin assumed yet another role as a Member—confronting issues of war or peace. President Wilson had called the 65th Congress into special session eight months early as America’s relations with Germany deteriorated. When Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping in the North Atlantic, threatening U.S. travelers and American commerce, diplomatic relations with Germany formally broke off in January. Now in the spring, news began coming in of German submarines sinking U.S. merchant ships and killing Americans.
On April 2 as President Wilson delivered his war message, Rankin once again confronted the duality of her congressional tenure. Rankin was a pacifist, and her Montana constituents had elected her, in part, to oppose U.S. involvement in the war. But for Rankin’s other set of constituents—the women of the suffrage movement—the war wasn’t so cut and dried. Like Rankin, Alice Paul of the NWP held deep pacifist beliefs. But Carrie Chapman Catt of NAWSA eagerly anticipated the war in order to push woman suffrage as a patriotic movement in aid of the war effort—a campaign similar to the one taking place in Great Britain. As Rankin listened to the president’s address, she was pulled in two directions: by the opposition of her own conscience and that of her home-state constituents, and by the very real possibility that the war could spark fundamental changes at home and expand voting rights.
For Rankin, serving in the House would never be one dimensional. By the end of her first day it was clear her tenure would be defined by having to navigate a shifting landscape of competing and often contradictory interests.
View silent historic footage featuring the opening day of the 65th Congress on April 2, 1917, as suffrage activists escort Jeannette Rankin of Montana from the Sewall-Belmont House to the nearby Capitol.
Sources: Boston Daily Globe, 1 April 1917; New York Tribune, 1 April 1917; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 April 1917; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (2 April 1917): 105–130; Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); Hannah Josephson, Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974); James J. Lopach and Jean A. Lutkowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005); Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002); Susan J. Tolchin, “Rankin, Jeannette,” in The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, ed. Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and Morton Keller (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995); Nancy Unger, “Rankin, Jeannette Pickering,” in American National Biography, vol. 18., ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Mary Walton, A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry, Alice Paul: Claiming Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.Follow @USHouseHistory