On July 8, 1917, Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, addressed a crowd of more than 3,000 at Braves Field in Boston, Massachusetts, just a stone’s throw from the Charles River. On stage, Rankin resembled “a college girl, of medium height, slight of build, with large dark eyes and an expressive face,” the Boston Globe reported, adding that the “woman Congressman” has a “sort of girlish laughing appeal in her voice.” But the newspaper was quick to make clear that “there is the weight of thought and logic in her words,” and proceeded to provide a window into the priorities occupying the Congresswoman in the summer of 1917.
Following “a splendid reception” from the large crowd—more than half of whom were women—Rankin began her speech by denouncing the continued resistance to women’s suffrage as a crippling blow to the economic and political future of the Republic. She also warned of the growing economic inequality in her home state and across the nation. According to Rankin, the solution to the political and economic problems facing the United States involved “not only democracy in Government, but democracy in industry.” Give women opportunities in both the voting booth and the workplace, she said, and these problems would disappear.
In 1917, the term “democracy” was ubiquitous in American political rhetoric. President Woodrow Wilson vowed to “make the world safe for democracy” by waging war against Germany. Suffragists such as Carrie Chapman Catt seized upon Wilson’s call to arms, urging Congress to save American democracy from the “taint of inconsistency” by granting women the right to vote. While one of Rankin’s first actions in the House of Representatives was to vote against the declaration of war that brought the United States into the First World War, she quickly realized that these wartime debates over democracy had strategic value to her crusade for a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution.
Democratizing the voting rolls was only a first step, however, and during her freshman term in Congress Rankin extended this campaign for democratic reform to the workplace. Throughout the 65th Congress (1917–1919), the Congresswoman consistently called for radical changes in the relationship between management and labor, and worked to transform the role of the federal government in labor disputes. Her first opportunity to put these ideas into practice came in July, when she appealed for reduced hours and better working conditions for women employed by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, July 1, 1917, more than four dozen women printers from the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing joined Congresswoman Rankin at her D.C. home for a morning meeting to discuss their long hours and physically taxing work. Rankin had been notified of their plight by a Montana relative of one of the women working in the Bureau. As part of the Treasury Department, the Bureau was responsible for printing stamps, certificates, paper money, and other government documents, such as the Liberty Bonds used to raise money for the American war effort. The Bureau had developed a reputation for difficult working conditions and low pay, and was often referred to as “the Nation’s Sweatshop.” Women employees told Rankin of the physical and mental strain caused by 12- to 14-hour days and compulsory overtime.
According to the New York Times, Rankin posed as a constituent accompanying another Member of Congress to tour the printing shop “incognito,” where she found women engaged in “nerve-racking” work. She also hired famed investigator Elizabeth Watson, well known for her muckraking chronicles of abuses in the prison system and child labor in the textile industry, to conduct an inquiry. Watson’s report on working conditions in the Bureau, based on affidavits from workers and physicians and her clandestine investigation of the shop floor under an assumed name, emphasized the mental stress and fatigue the women experienced after working long hours in a pressure-cooker environment. Workers were forced to maintain a “pace set by machines,” and the women tasked with numbering and inspecting documents frequently needed eye exams after long hours on the job. Watson attempted to quantify the physical exertion required of women working the printing presses, who had to lift their arms over their heads more than 6,000 times each day. In addition, many women employees also faced verbal and physical harassment from men in management positions. Over the next week, Rankin publicized Watson’s findings, demanded a congressional investigation, and visited President Wilson at the White House to discuss the matter.
While her efforts were hailed by many women at the Bureau, Rankin faced criticism from workers upset about the proposed restrictions on working hours. Without a corresponding increase in pay, men and women limited to eight-hour days faced a significant reduction in wages. Opponents of the shortened workday claimed the mantle of patriots “willing to do their bit” for the war effort, and did not want to miss out on the financial opportunity to work more overtime hours during the war. “We are glad to get the extra pay,” one woman employee declared at a July 5 meeting held to denounce Rankin’s efforts.
The director of the Bureau, Joseph Ralph, also objected to Rankin’s intervention. Without the extra effort of the Bureau staff, Ralph insisted, it would be difficult to keep pace with the printing needs of the federal government. The grueling conditions were necessary if the institution intended to complete its “war work.”
Rankin had anticipated this line of attack in her syndicated newspaper column in May and June 1917. She acknowledged the workers’ concerns about lost wages, calling for an increase in the minimum wage for the Bureau’s workforce, and objected to those critics who used “the demands of wartime” to justify long hours and harsh working conditions. Instead, Rankin called for management to “preserve the standards of the workers upon which the strength the country depends.” Despite her pacifism, Rankin knew the war could be a catalyst for change at home—especially for women. She cited England as an example, where, since the war began in 1914, women had won access to new job opportunities and improvements in wages and working conditions.
Rankin’s inquiry prodded Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo to convene a special committee to investigate working conditions at the Bureau. On the following Monday, July 9, Rankin attended the committee’s hearing. McAdoo had encouraged workers to submit honest statements to the committee without fear of reprimand, and the press described the hearing room as “besieged” by two hundred women clamoring to offer testimony and to observe the committee’s investigation. Before the proceedings adjourned, 46 women testified about working conditions and many were left disappointed they could not add their experience to the record. The committee also collected official Bureau documents demonstrating that both men and women had been forced to work up to 16-hour days for months. By the end of the hearing, the committee determined that overtime work was no longer necessary. McAdoo immediately ordered an eight-hour schedule for men and women at the Bureau.
In just over one week, Jeannette Rankin had used her position as a Member of Congress to convince the Treasury Secretary to improve working conditions in his department. Despite her very public role in this campaign, Rankin recognized that the gains won by women printers could be the start of a larger movement—and encouraged more women workers to follow suit. This was an integral part of the Congresswoman’s interconnected vision for industrial relations and women’s suffrage. Rankin insisted women join trade unions to “enforce by solidarity their demands for better wages and shorter hours.” And she fought for women’s suffrage, so women workers could employ “the power of the ballot to back up their demands” in the workplace. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage barely two weeks into her first term in April 1917, Rankin argued that “unorganized and unenfranchised” women workers embodied the contradictions of America’s democratic promises. Only by winning rights in the workplace and the privileges of citizenship would that change.
To Be Continued in Part II.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (12 June 1918); Hearing before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, S. J. Res. 2, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (20 April 1917); James A. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2005); President Woodrow Wilson, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress Requesting a Declaration of War against Germany,” 2 April 1917, The American Presidency Project, www.presidency.ucsb.edu [accessed 29 March 2017]; Papers of Jeannette Rankin, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; Boston Globe, 9 July 1917; New York Times, 2 July 1917, 16 July 1917; Washington Post, 2 July 1917, 3 July 1917, 5 July 1917, 7 July 1917, 8 July 1917, 9 July 1917, 10 July 1917; San Francisco Chronicle, 27 May 1917, 4 June 1917, 10 June 1917; The Masses vol. 9, no. 11 (September 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