It was no accident—nor mere symbolism—that on January 10, 1918, a woman led the effort on the floor of the U.S. House to pass the landmark resolution for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The first such proposal had been introduced in Congress almost 50 years earlier, but it was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve on Capitol Hill, who steadily built support in the House for women's voting rights throughout the 65th Congress (1917–1919).
Rankin’s election to the House in November 1916 catapulted her to celebrity status, and she shrewdly exploited the public attention to highlight the issue of suffrage for women. She and her staff wrote a semiweekly column for the Hearst newspaper syndicate, and she gave frequent interviews to reporters. She rarely passed up an opportunity to address civic groups outside the House. Her tactics and those of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)—which suspended all congressional lobbying when the United States entered World War I in April 1917—stood in stark relief with those of the sometimes rival National Woman’s Party (NWP) led by Alice Paul. In January 1917, the NWP began a daily White House vigil demanding action on women's suffrage—a decision that at first provoked derision and, later, hostility for its perceived lack of patriotism during wartime.
In this environment, Rankin’s presence in Congress kept voting rights for women on the national agenda. She endorsed California Democrat John E. Raker’s proposal for a new standing committee that would deal exclusively with bills related to woman suffrage, allowing voting legislation to bypass the hostile Judiciary Committee. President Woodrow Wilson, who saw suffrage as a matter best left to the individual states, endorsed Raker’s initiative as a way to support women's enfranchisement without calling for a constitutional amendment. Rankin testified on behalf of Raker’s proposal before the House Rules Committee in May, and on June 6 Raker’s resolution was favorably reported to the House on the condition that all pending war measures be passed before the new committee could be brought up for consideration. Behind Rankin’s leadership, NAWSA endorsed Raker’s proposal and resumed lobbying Congress as a means to counter protests by NWP.
Raker’s resolution reached the House Floor on September 24. Rules Committee Chairman Edward W. Pou of North Carolina stated that “in this hour, when the life of this Republic is at stake and when American women are responding to the call to duty equally with the men” a suffrage committee was necessary. “We have as a Member of this body the first woman Representative in the American Congress,” Pou said to applause. “She will not be the last, Mr. Speaker.”
Rankin spoke in favor of the resolution, arguing that the new committee would underscore Congress’s commitment to the issue in light of how difficult it would be to change if left to the states. “Perhaps it is news to you to know that some of the women of the United States can never be enfranchised except by a Federal amendment,” she said, “for the constitutions of some of the States are such that it is practically impossible to amend them.” The measure carried easily, 180 to 107. Afterward, some speculated that Rankin would lead the Woman Suffrage Committee, but as a Member of the minority this was unlikely. She was, however, accorded the honor of serving as the Ranking Republican—a highly unusual nod to a freshman Member in an institution where senior Members wielded much of the legislative power.
Undeterred, the opponents of women's suffrage remained active, using any opportunity to impede the work of the new committee. In December the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Edwin Yates Webb of North Carolina, sent to the House his own constitutional amendment on woman suffrage which included a seven-year ratification window. Arguing that his committee had exhaustively studied the issue, Webb pushed for quick passage, telling the House that he did not “agree with the suffrage forces that the resolution should be taken out of our hands.” Raker immediately protested but a ruling from the chair declared that the Judiciary Committee retained all suffrage measures that had been referred to it prior to the creation of the Woman Suffrage Committee. As a compromise, Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri requested that all suffrage measures be reintroduced and referred to Raker’s committee which would then have to report a new bill by January 10, 1918.
Raker lost no time. The Woman Suffrage Committee began its hearings on January 3, 1918, with witnesses testifying for and against the voting rights amendment. At the hearing, Rankin reinforced the arguments of suffrage advocates and highlighted flaws in the opposition’s logic. When former Senator Joseph W. Bailey testified that the vote should be limited to those able to exercise “all the duties of citizenship,” Rankin observed, “We have men in the United States Senate who cannot serve in the Army, and yet they make splendid Senators.”
On the morning on January 10, 1918, the Capitol was crowded with people who had arrived early to secure a seat in the House Gallery for the suffrage debate. Many were women, who prepared for a long debate by bringing lunches and knitting supplies. NAWSA’s leadership—Carrie Chapman Catt and others—were guests of Speaker Clark. The evening before the debate, the legislation received a boost from President Wilson who announced his support for the amendment because it was “an act of right and justice” as well as “a war measure.”
As an initial victory for the suffragists, the House Rules Committee decided to bring the Woman Suffrage Committee report to the floor, ignoring the report of the Judiciary Committee entirely. The rule governing consideration that day split debate into four parts. Chairman Raker controlled time for Democratic supporters of the resolution, and Edward Watts Saunders of Virginia managed time for Democratic opponents. Jacob Edwin Meeker of Missouri was selected to lead Republican opponents, and Rankin was tapped to control time for Republican supporters. Only one other woman joined her on the House Floor that day: May Offterdinger, the clerk of the Woman Suffrage Committee who sat at Chairman Raker’s side.
As Raker approached a lectern to open debate, Massachusetts Republican Joseph Walsh, a suffrage opponent, suddenly asked, “Would it interfere seriously with your plans if you were to let Miss Rankin open the debate?” Raker immediately yielded to Rankin.
She began by invoking American women leaders of note: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Clara Barton, Mary Livermore, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Willard, Lucy Stone, Jane Addams, and others—“all have asked the Government to permit women to serve more effectively the national welfare.” Noting that this issue now came up in time of war, Rankin asked that women be given the chance to serve their nation. “As never before the Nation needs its women—needs the work of their hands and their hearts and their minds,” she said.
To those who believed the issue should be left to the states, she had a simple message. “We mobilized and equipped our Army not State by State but through Congress,” she reminded them. “Shall our women, our home defense, be our only fighters in the struggle for democracy who shall be denied Federal action?” In the war for democracy, everyone was committed—not just those men at the front but the farmer growing crops, the seamstress making uniforms, and the miner extracting copper from deep underground.
She concluded her remarks to sustained applause. “Can we afford to allow these men and women to doubt for a single instant the sincerity of our protestations of democracy? How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”
Rankin’s presence that day served as a powerfully vivid and visual reminder that women had assumed a new role in American politics. If women could now hold federal elective office, why couldn’t all American women vote in federal elections? The eloquence of her example far exceeded any speech made that day. As a constitutional amendment, the resolution required a two-thirds majority to pass the House, and it won with the thinnest possible margin, 274 to 136 (Speaker Clark had been prepared to cast the deciding vote in favor if needed). Applause and cheers greeted the announcement.
Despite the impassioned rhetoric that day, the Senate failed to pass the suffrage amendment in that Congress (the woman suffrage bill—what would become the 19th Amendment—went to the states for ratification in the next Congress). Nevertheless, the January 1918 victory in the House represented a major landmark in the suffrage movement that had begun at Seneca Falls 70 years earlier. Historians point to a variety of reasons for the House’s action on that winter evening: NAWSA’s suffrage campaigns at the state and national levels; the NWP’s direct-action picketing; President Wilson’s endorsement; Republican support of women's suffrage since 1916.
And while each of these variables undoubtedly factored into the outcome, they fail to account for the impact of a singular individual: Jeannette Rankin, whose public embrace of the movement, determination to create a suffrage committee, eloquence, and—perhaps most of all—steady example as the first woman in Congress, pushed women’s voting rights to the front of America’s agenda and pushed it far nearer to reality.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2d sess. (10 January 1918); Atlanta Constitution, 25 September 1917, 11 January 1918; Louisville Courier-Journal, 11 January 1918; Chicago Daily Tribune, 25 September 1917, 11 January 1918; Christian Science Monitor, 19 May 1917, 7 June 1917, 4 September 1917, 13 December 1917, 10 January 1918; New York Times, 11 December 1917, 12 December 1917, 16 December 1917, 19 December 1917, 11 January 1918; New York Tribune, 11 December 1917; Washington Post, 25 September 1917, 12 December 1917; Hannah Josephson, Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974); Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000); David E. Kyvig, Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776–1995 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996); Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002).
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we published a series of blog posts about early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution.Follow @USHouseHistory