The fall of 1916 brought a both a tragic loss and a great victory for suffrage. On October 23, celebrated suffrage leader Inez Milholland (the woman on the horse who led the 1913 parade) collapsed during a speech in Los Angeles, California. Her famous last words were, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” She was 30 years old. Then on November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress.
Jeannette Rankin ran as a Republican at a time when the Republican Party was in favor of federal rights over state rights, wanted income tax especially for the wealthy, was trying to break up monopolies and proposed many progressive social reforms. The Democrats were the conservatives. Rankin herself was more progressive than many in her own party. She campaigned on suffrage, social welfare issues, and against the U.S. entering WWI. This was the first election when women in Montana could exercise their newly won right to vote (Episode 66). Montana was very politically divided and it had a majority of conservative Democrats. Montana had two seats in Congress. A conservative Democrat won the first seat and Rankin won the second.
Her congressional career started off with one of the hardest votes that any nation is asked to make...whether or not to go to war. In April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to “make the world safe for democracy” by joining the allied forces and declaring war on Germany. Rankin was a strong pacifist and abstained from the debate which did not sit well with many suffragists who felt it would hurt their cause. Unaware of the House rules, she made a statement before casting her vote which broke protocol. She said “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.” The final vote was 373 for and 50 against. America officially entered WWI.
The press was not kind about her vote. She was accused of being “a dupe of the Kaiser” and a “crying schoolgirl”. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) distanced themselves from her vote saying “Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation—she represents Montana.”
In 1918 she pushed for national suffrage by recalling the reason for entering WWI and asked “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” She also fought for programs for working mothers, child welfare, and workers rights including supporting the striking miners in Butte, MT. She had little chance of being reelected to Congress so she ran for Senate when her term was up. She did not succeed.
She continued to work for suffrage, labor rights, consumer protection, and pacifism but returned to Congress for a second term in the lead up to WWII. The current Republican Congressman was a vehement Anti-Semite. She was able to win the primary and used her status as the first woman elected to Congress and endorsements of some of influential progressives such as Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City to solidly win the election with 54% of the vote.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, America once again had to decide whether or not our nation should go to war. Rankin attended the debate determined to voice her opposition to the war. Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn of Texas refused to recognize her on the floor and called her out of order. Other members told her to sit down. Sympathetic colleagues tried to tell her to just abstain from the vote. Amid boos and hisses, she voted no. The resolution to enter into WWII passed in the House 388 to 1. She hid in a phone booth and had to wait for a police escort to leave the building. Her constituents in Montana turned against her. The rest of her term she was relegated to the sidelines. The press and her colleagues ignored her. She voted “present” on the vote to declare war with Italy and Germany and did not run for re-election in 1942.
For the rest of her life, Rankin stayed true to her convictions of peace and was a vocal supporter of Gandhi. She also protested the Vietnam War. In 1968 she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade in a march on Washington and shortly before her death in 1973 she considered a third run for Congress in order to protest the Vietnam War.
This week’s song pick:
“This Girl is on Fire” by Alicia Keys
Video pick is a fan compilation of the “Hunger Games” https://youtu.be/ZuKzypMSMqQ
Episode 70 Sources:
More about Inez Milholland