The photograph on the East Front of the Capitol on March 20, 1918, straddled the seasons, winter in Washington yielding to a fresh spring.
That day, roughly 260 House Members gathered in a circle two-deep on the plaza between the building’s grand center staircase and the Olmsted fountains. Leaf-bare but budding trees lined the grounds toward East Capitol Street. And the strengthening March sun, which warmed the city from the low 40s to a high of 71 that day, still hung low enough in the late morning sky to cause anyone facing the diffuse glow toward the southeast to squint.
Seated in the center of the photograph and wearing a slightly cocked, broad-brimmed hat, a lone woman fixed her gaze on the camera. Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, seated with her hands in her side pockets, appeared stoic but confident.
A few weeks shy of a year in office, the first woman in Congress had compiled a legislative record that even the old hands surrounding her must have envied.
Using her national profile as a congressional pioneer, Rankin had convinced the House to create the Committee on Woman Suffrage, a standing committee to which she was appointed the Ranking Republican. Then, in January 1918, when the panel reported a resolution to the House for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, she helped lead the floor debate to win its passage.
Rankin also redeemed her campaign pledge to uphold her pacifist principles—voting with a small minority against the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in early April 1917. Yet, with troops in the field, she supported wartime appropriations, encouraged the production of critical raw materials in her home state of Montana, and even voted for the U.S. declaration of war with Austria-Hungary in late 1917—all to end the fighting and bring the soldiers home as swiftly as possible.
Even as she posed for that March photograph, speculation swirled that she would soon announce her decision to run in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat from Montana (she eventually did so in July, as the frontrunner).
Despite her accomplishments, though, the photo laid bare the inescapability of Rankin’s isolation. Here, she is an outlier—seemingly an island of womanhood—a relatively young woman of 37 in a sea of mostly late middle-aged, almost exclusively white men.
And yet just 11 months into her term, she’d proven herself to be remarkably adept as a legislator—to such a degree that being at the center of the photo was perhaps more than a nod to her gender. While the picture underscores her unique achievement, it also foreshadows—in a much more subtle, fateful manner—the future of women in Congress in the first decades after Rankin’s election.
Rankin won election to the House in her own right but many of the earliest women who followed her to Capitol Hill first won their seats because of a pre-existing familial connection to Congress. They were frequently daughters of prominent political fathers or wives of long-serving Congressmen.
In fact, five of the men standing nearby Rankin on that spring morning—all within roughly 50 feet of her—would later die in office and be succeeded by their wives who were, in fact, the first five widows to serve in Congress. These women established a tradition that for many decades served as a primary route for others who followed them into congressional service.
This so-called widow’s mandate accounted for more than a third of all the women who served in both the House and Senate prior to 1975. But the trend was most prominent in the House. Whereas Senators may be appointed to fill a vacancy because of death or resignation, a vacancy in the House requires that a new Representative be elected in a special election. The timing of these mid-Congress elections varied from state to state but historically voter turnout was low. Local party leaders grasped any advantage to hold the seat and to head off internecine nomination fights. So, in the 1920s, they began to select the widows of deceased Congressmen. The name recognition offered a built-in ballot edge that proved decisive in these short and often improvised contests; it also spared party leaders from having to pick favorites from among would-be male successors. In most cases, the expectation was that the widow would hold the seat for the balance of the term, perhaps as a “memorial” to her husband’s legislative work, and then retire to make way for a “suitable” (read “male”) candidate in the next election.
Such considerations were at play in the cases of each of the wives who eventually succeeded their husbands in this photo. But each outcome was unique.
In the row behind Rankin, the sixth man to her right is San Francisco Congressman John I. Nolan (labeled 189 in the photograph). He was chairman of the Labor Committee when he passed away in late 1922 and was succeeded by his wife, Mae Ella Nolan, whom local leaders had prevailed upon a few months later to run in the special election to fill the vacancy. She served not only as the first widow in Congress, but as the first mother with a young child (a pre-teen daughter, Corlis) and as the first woman to chair a House committee—Expenditures in the Post Office. She eventually left the House, citing the burden of being a single parent while juggling her congressional duties.
The fourth man seated to Rankin’s right, Julius Kahn (60), representing the other congressional district in San Francisco, chaired the Military Affairs Committee in the following Congress until his death in late 1924. By that point, he’d served for more than 20 years in the House, and his wife Florence Kahn had become intimately familiar with his legislative agenda. She won the special election to succeed him in early 1925. Her insider’s knowledge of the institution made her an unusually savvy freshman Member, and soon she became the first woman to serve on the Military Affairs and Appropriations Committees, steering federal dollars toward major infrastructure projects in the Bay Area during her 12-year career. The press adored Kahn for her wit and unfiltered banter. A reporter once asked the grandmotherly Kahn what the secret was to her legislative success. Without hesitation, she answered, “Sex appeal!”
The sixth and seventh men seated to Rankin’s left, were Arkansas Representatives William Oldfield (70) and Otis Wingo (71). Their wives, Pearl and Effiegene, succeeded the men after their deaths in 1929 and 1930, respectively. Like many southern congressional widows their terms were brief; they each served just a few years in the House, overlapping for part of the 71st Congress (1929–1931). Much of their focus was on alleviating the disastrous effects of the Great Depression on their largely rural, farming constituency in Arkansas. By 1933, both had retired to private life.
In the back row, at the far right, stood Representative John Rogers of Massachusetts (207). When Rogers died in 1925, local leaders tapped his wife, Edith Nourse Rogers, to run in the special election to fill his seat, expecting her to step aside for a male candidate in the next election.
But Rogers, already widely known as an advocate for U.S. servicemen, had other ideas. She served in the House for more than 35 years which, until this week, made her the longest serving woman Member in House history. On March 18, 2018, Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur eclipsed Rogers’ record. Rogers broke ground in other ways, too, chairing the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and helping create both the World War II Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the landmark GI Bill of Rights. “The first 30 years are the hardest,” Rogers once said of her House service. “It’s like taking care of the sick. You start it and you like the work, and you just keep on.”
By comparison, Rankin’s trailblazing congressional career would be brief. She left the House in 1919 after a failed run for a Montana Senate seat, returning to private life for two decades where she worked on behalf of women’s rights and pacifist causes. When, in 1940, Rankin won election to the House for her second and final term—one in which she’d be the lone Member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War II—she was one of 10 women in the 77th Congress (1941–1943), serving alongside Edith Nourse Rogers in the House.
But on that day in March 1918, as Rankin and her male colleagues gazed into the camera on the East Front, all of that lay ahead. In ways obvious at that moment—and in others unanticipated—Rankin’s example had taken root. The season of women’s exclusion from politics and public life was passing, and the door to equality on Capitol Hill, and indeed in U.S. society, cracked open just a bit wider. Rankin would not be alone for long.
Sources: Washington Evening Star, 20 March 1918; Washington Post, 21 March 1918; New York Times, 6 July 1918; Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 1918; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 March 1918); Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women in Congress” online exhibition, http://history.house.gov/Exhibition-and-Publications/WIC/Women-in-Congress/.Follow @USHouseHistory