Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana earned a permanent place in U.S. history by becoming the first woman elected to Congress. She served two non-consecutive terms and became the only person to vote against America’s entry into both World War I in 1917 and World War II in 1941. Her political career ended with her lone vote against war on December 8, 1941, as the U.S. Pacific Fleet burned at Pearl Harbor.
She cast those two votes under remarkably different circumstances, but her vote in 1941 has heavily influenced the public memory of her earlier stand against war in 1917. In 1941 she was alone in her opposition to World War II. In 1917, however, she was one of 50 Representatives who voted against war, including powerful Members like Democratic Leader Claude Kitchen of North Carolina.
Rankin’s “no” vote in 1941 cost the Congresswoman her seat in Congress; Rankin’s “no” vote in 1917 did not. Despite what some modern reference works might suggest, Rankin’s opposition to World War I had modest, if any, influence on the length of her tenure in the House. While she may have voted against the resolution declaring war against Germany in 1917, she backed a number of war-time resolutions to support the troops, and later that year voted for the resolution declaring war on Austria-Hungary. In fact, by the time Rankin cast her vote against entering World War I in April 1917, she was already considering not running for re-election to the House in order to become a candidate for the Senate. And by 1918 she was a significant challenge to an incumbent U.S. Senator.
Seven years earlier, following the 1910 Census, Montana gained additional representation in the House bringing its total number of congressional seats to two. In the elections of 1912, 1914, and 1916, the two Montana Representatives served as At-Large Members—meaning they did not represent the interests of a particular district, but were instead elected in a statewide vote. That electoral quirk gave Rankin a path to the House: as part of her original campaign strategy during her history-making victory in 1916 she didn’t need to win the most votes. By coming in second statewide, she was guaranteed a seat in Congress, and her plan worked.
A year later, however, in late winter 1917, the Montana legislature passed a bill doing away with the state’s At-Large congressional seats. In their place, the Montana senate created a western and eastern congressional district for the state. Rankin was a Republican, and she had won in 1916 on the support of Republican votes from across Montana. But her residence now lay within the new western district, a traditionally Democratic part of the state. Were she to run for re-election to the House, she would face her fellow incumbent, Montana’s other sitting Representative, Democrat John M. Evans. As one newspaper reported, “friends of Miss Rankin are inclined to think that in making the division there was an object in view of eliminating her from congressional politics.” It likely had little to do with her anti-war vote since Montana’s redistricting plan had been approved before Rankin voted against America’s entry into World War I. Regardless, Montana residents began speculating that Rankin would pass on a campaign for the House and instead challenge Montana’s incumbent Democratic Senator Thomas J. Walsh.
While Rankin quietly reviewed her political options, she tested public support by declaring that she had “been gerrymandered with a view to defeating her reelection.” She held off announcing her electoral future, concentrating on her efforts in Washington to pass the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution and to fight for better working conditions for women employees in the federal government. By delaying an announcement, Rankin was also able to evaluate her potential opponents.
Rankin announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate on July 5, 1918, running on issues that had punctuated her House service: her support for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a controversial labor union active in the state, and her belief that the state’s labor problems fell at the feet of the Anaconda Copper Company, a major employer. One reporter wrote that her “views are so radically progressive that she is sometimes called a Socialist by her enemies.” She was particularly opposed to the ubiquitous influence of the state’s copper mining interests. “They own the State,” Rankin told a newspaper. “They own the Government. They own the press.” Critics argued that she ran for the Senate for less noble reasons—namely that she wouldn’t be able to win re-election to the House in the new Democratic district. By the time she filed as a Senate candidate three Republican opponents were also campaigning for the party nomination. One newspaper predicted that Rankin would win the Republican primary since her opponents would split the conservative vote, leaving her with a large and generally progressive bloc of voters.
Rankin had pinned part of her election hopes on the state’s Nonpartisan League—which advocated for policies to limit the influence of banks and corporations in the agricultural sector—to support her candidacy during the primary. But by late August 1918 the Nonpartisan League had decided to concentrate on assisting Democratic candidates running for the state legislature in an effort to form a governing majority. It was a major blow to Rankin’s candidacy. The League’s decision meant their members would ask for the Democratic primary ballots at the polls rather than the Republican ballots where Rankin’s name appeared. Her campaign then looked to Montana’s women voters. Since 40,000 of Montana’s men were serving in the military during the war, women temporarily made up a slightly larger proportion of voters.
On primary day, August 27, it soon became apparent that Rankin would come in second. Dr. O.M. Lanstrum won the Republican nomination with 18,805 votes; Rankin was close behind with 17,091. Several newspapers blamed her loss on the Nonpartisan League’s decision to abandon her race, and said Rankin’s support of the radical IWW also cost her votes. Although the New York Tribune speculated that Rankin would pick up the votes of “pro-German sympathizers” there seemed to be little direct mention of her vote against America’s entry into World War I.
Coincidently, a third party, the tiny National Party, had also held its primary, and Rankin won its nomination to the Senate with 127 write-in votes. Two days later, Wellington Rankin, her brother, confirmed that Jeannette Rankin would remain in the race for the Senate.
Without the imprimatur of either of the two major national parties, however, Rankin’s campaign struggled for a foothold. On Election Day, November 3, 1918, she came in third place with 26,013 votes. The incumbent Democratic Senator Thomas J. Walsh won with 46,160 votes. Republican O.M. Lanstrum came in second with 40,229 votes.
In an ironic, almost cruel twist of fate, Carl Riddick, the Republican candidate who, in 1918, ran for the House from Montana’s western district—the very district Rankin decided not to run in—won election to succeed Rankin in the House with 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Many years later, when asked why she persisted in running for the Senate after losing the Republican primary, she blamed dirty politics. She said the state Democratic organization had offered her a bribe to eschew a third-party candidacy that could threaten Senator Walsh’s reelection. “In order to prove that I didn’t accept the bribes,” Rankin recalled, “I had to run. Otherwise, I could never prove that I hadn’t accepted them. So I ran, knowing, of course, that there was no chance of being elected.” It would be 14 more years before Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the Senate in 1932.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, 23 August 1917; Boston Daily Globe, 2 February 1918; Christian Science Monitor, 1 February and 28 March 1917, 22 August 1918; Indianapolis Star, 27 August 1918; Louisville Courier-Journal, 30 August 1918; New-York Tribune, 6 July, 27 August, and 29 August 1918; San Francisco Chronicle, 13 September 1918; Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: The Official Results of the Elections of the 1st through 105th Congresses (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998); John C. Board, “The Lady from Montana: Jeannette Rankin” (MA thesis. University of Wyoming, 1964); Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002); Susan J. Tolchin, “Jeannette Rankin,” in Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and Morton Keller, eds., The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 1668–1669; Nancy C. Unger, “Jeannette Pickering Rankin,” in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography 18 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 142–144.Follow @USHouseHistory
Read about the great triumphs and historic firsts that highlight the first generation of Women in Congress’s foray into national political office from 1917 to 1934.More >