When Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri adjourned the 64th Congress sine die at noon on March 4, 1917, the House dissolved into customary revelry. Members and visitors joined in throaty renditions of “Dixie” and “The Old Oaken Bucket,” belting out lyrics until the chorus grew hoarse. When the crowd lurched into “How Dry I Am,” the “Wets” in the chamber, those Members who wanted to keep alcohol legal and who were on the verge of failing to block Prohibition, sang with particular gusto.
Amid the merriment, Representative James Gallivan leapt onto a table in the well of the House and announced the arrival of an eagerly anticipated guest.
“By unanimous consent the lady from Montana will now take the floor,” Gallivan bellowed, referring to none other than Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin who’d won a resounding election in November 1916 to one of that state’s two At-Large seats, was set to be sworn in as a Member when the new session opened.
In an instant, the merrymakers swiveled toward the Massachusetts Congressman. For some time, rumors had swirled that Rankin was due to arrive in the capital any day and anticipation had built for many on Capitol Hill eager to catch a glimpse of the famous Congresswoman-elect.
Now that he commanded the chamber’s attention, Gallivan continued, “I appoint the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Britten, to point out the lady and ask her to speak.”
“Where is she?” shouted dozens of spectators scanning the chamber.
Wild applause erupted as Frederick Britten of Illinois extended his hand to a “stylishly dressed woman” who had just entered the chamber, and escorted her down an aisle toward the Speaker. The cry of “Speech, speech,” rose from the crowd.
Gallivan egged them on, “Three cheers and a tiger for the lady from Montana.”
Once in the well of the House, the woman bowed to applause. “My friends, I prefer to make my first speech in the next house,” she told the expectant crowd.
With that, she bowed once again and took a seat. The Detroit Free Press noted that, “From every corner of the chamber members and their wives and children rushed over to greet” the history-making figure.
Virtually all of them went home that day thinking they had done just that, none the wiser that they were victims of a hoax hatched by Britten, Gallivan, and Julia Riley Edmonds, the wife of Pennsylvania Congressman George Edmonds, who pretended to be Rankin. Julia Edmonds’ unflappable acting skills contributed to the success of the practical joke. “Without a sign of embarrassment, Mrs. Edmonds began shaking hands,” reported the New York Times. “Soon a long line formed in front of the speaker’s stand and the galleries turned their entire attention to the demonstration. Old attaches of the house said the jollification today outdid in fervor any they had witnessed in years.” The spectacle lasted more than an hour.
Only later—when newspaper correspondents worked their way toward the “Congresswoman” who hustled out of the chamber before they reached her—did Gallivan and Britten reveal the hoax.
All indications were that the elaborate prank was meant to tug at an eager and gullible audience rather than to make light of Rankin’s election. Its success wasn’t so surprising given how primed the public was for her Washington arrival. Press coverage of the new Congresswoman had reached a frenzied pitch that, in some aspects, compares to modern paparazzi in pursuit of a tabloid-worthy starlet. Yet, without television, the 24-hour news cycle, or social media, far more Americans had heard of Rankin than had any idea what she looked like. One wire article, published in newspapers across the country on the day the 64th Congress adjourned, breathlessly forecasted that the Montanan “may hold the balance of power” in the closely divided 65th Congress on crucial votes such as prohibition and suffrage, both of which she supported. The story ran with a posed photograph of Rankin sitting in profile.
Other newspaper coverage ventured far afield from Rankin’s policy positions. In a pattern repeated with most early women pioneers on Capitol Hill, many accounts focused on the new congresswoman’s looks and “personal habits,” with a level of fascination and scrutiny unlike that paid to Congressmen. In Rankin’s case, some of this treatment possibly stemmed from the fact that reporters and editors, lacking the ability to discuss her on the merits of a prior legislative record, wrote of the Montanan largely in the only terms they knew how—treating her as a society page subject. Some descriptions may have had less innocent motives, however, as not-so-subtle attempts to delegitimize the first woman elected to Congress before she ever stepped foot in the House.
On the morning of March 4, a Washington Post headline blurted, “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.” The accompanying story sought to dispel “speculation” that the new member of Congress was “a severely-gowned woman, with spectacles, straight-combed hair, stiff white collars and spats.” Instead, the author assured readers that Rankin “is described as a woman who is thoroughly feminine—from her charmingly coiffed swirl of chestnut hair to the small, high and distinctively French heels. She is given to soft and clinging gowns, and, according to her own confession, is very fond of moving pictures.”
While Rankin seemed to believe that the press focus on her appearance was overwrought, we do not know what she thought of the March 1917 hoax or if she was even aware that it had been perpetrated. Besides, when the real Miss Rankin arrived at the Capitol on April 2, 1917, to take the oath of office, her historic entrance proved far more spectacular than Edmonds’ hoax.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 64th Cong., 2nd sess. (4 March 1917): 5020–5033; Boston Daily Globe, 4 March 1917; Washington Post, 4 and 5 March 1917; New York Times, 5 March 1917, 29 September 1939 (obituary of George W. Edmonds); Detroit Free Press, 5 March 1917.
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