Silence was not common in the contentious chambers of the House of Representatives, but the wee hours of Friday, April 6, 1917, were different. This was an epic moment: exactly 101 years ago today, the representatives were voting on war. Beginning at 2:45 am, as the clerk of the House called each member’s name, one after the other, scarcely a sound broke the tense stillness, except representatives calling “Aye” or “Nay.” Their votes echoed hollowly through the House’s grand galleries, filled with curious onlookers, many still finely attired from evening parties hours earlier.
With an angry nor’easter raging outside the Capitol, the chamber inside was oddly calm. The single exception to the hush occurred when the clerk called the name of Jeanette Rankin, the first-term Republican from Montana, and Congress’s first and only female member. The first time the clerk called her name, Rankin, sitting with her head bowed near the rear of the Chamber, simply did not respond. When the clerk called her name during the second roll call, however, and Rankin still did not speak, he tried again. “Miss Rankin,” he called insistently. Rankin, visibly nervous and blushing, rose tentatively to her feet. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she said in her distinctive Western accent. This simple sentence was her first ever speech on the floor of the House. “Vote, vote,” some members started calling. In a voice so low and ragged with emotion that few heard it, Rankin whispered, “No,” and almost immediately exited the chamber.
It had taken more than sixteen hours of debate in the House to reach this moment. The speeches had started at 10:00 am the previous morning, with some representatives hoping in vain to limit debate so they could adjourn before Good Friday the following day. Some representatives expressed mild dissent in early speeches, but it was not until about 3:00 pm, when Democratic floor leader Claude Kitchin rose to speak, that the debate truly began. In a trembling voice, Kitchin started, “It does not take great courage to vote for other men to go out and fight.” As he continued, his voice grew stronger. Kitchin conceded that Germany had indeed attacked American civilians, but so had Mexico, and the country had avoided all-out war in that conflict. He could not vote for war. Other representatives rose afterward to voice their agreement. Senator Robert La Follette, the famous Progressive, could be seen nodding in the back of the hall.
Jeannette Rankin, the daughter of an immigrant carpenter and a schoolteacher, had only been elected to Congress weeks earlier, the first woman ever elected. A champion of women’s suffrage and a former social worker, Rankin was a fledgling pacifist—but on the vote for war, she was torn. Her heroes in the suffrage movement were divided; several suffragist leaders told her a “no” vote would hurt their cause; friends and family had been putting enormous pressure on her to vote for war; her brother and close confidant, Wellington, urged her to vote a “man’s vote,” so as not to hurt her future career. Yet Rankin felt that World War I was a “commercial war.” She suspected what future historians would prove—that the arms industry, which had lent billions to England and her allies, was exerting enormous pressure on Woodrow Wilson’s government to enter the war. This would be a war for profit, not one for democracy.
In all, representatives made more than one hundred speeches during the meeting that stretched from April 5 to April 6. At one point, when one member challenged a more hawkish colleague to enlist himself, and the two men almost came to blows, the sergeant-at-arms, mace drawn, had to intercede. In the end, however, all the argument was for naught. The House voted overwhelming—373 to 50—for war. The Senate, which had met days earlier, saw only six dissenting votes. Applause greeted the final vote in the House. The people wanted war.
Yet Jeannette Rankin did not. Walking home during the dark early morning hours after the vote, she told herself, “You know you’re not going to be reelected.” Then she told herself, “I’m not interested in that.”
The newspapers focused far more on Rankin’s “no” vote than on the “no” votes of dozens of her male colleagues. Many accounts claimed she cried as she cast her vote; she had not. In the end, Rankin did lose her seat in Congress (after Montana’s congressional districts were redrawn). She remained a passionate advocate for suffrage and became a lobbyist for peace. She traveled to India and studied with disciples of Gandhi. In 1940, she defeated a virulent anti-Semite to win a second term in the House of Representatives. Almost two years later, in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rankin became the only member in either house of Congress to vote against entering World War II. Her political career was over.
Jeanette Rankin’s votes against both world wars—whether you agree or disagree with her ideology—took extraordinary courage. Such acts of courage are not mere trivia. As President Trump moves our country dangerously toward conflicts with friends and foes alike, the courage of individual members of Congress may be all that stands between our country and terrible chaos. Rankin’s example is certainly worth remembering.
About the Author
Scott W. Stern is the author of the forthcoming book The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottWStern.