Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Only Woman to Vote for the 19th Amendment

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) is known for many things, but she preferred to be “remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

At the time the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, no women were serving in Congress. Rankin, two-time U.S. Representative from Montana, was the first woman elected to a federal office. During her first term, 1917-19, a resolution that would later become the Nineteenth Amendment passed the House. Though she was no longer holding office when ratification occurred, her unique standing remains.

Jeannette Rankin, 1917
Bain News Service
Active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Rankin had been instrumental in making Montana the seventh state to give women unrestricted voting rights in 1914.

Interestingly, she won election in a state-wide contest in 1916, when Montana had two at-large seats in the House. But before the next election, the state legislature divided the state into two districts. Rankin, a Republican, knew she could not win in the largely Democratic district where she lived. So instead of running for reelection, she unsuccessfully sought one of Montana’s seats in the U.S. Senate.

A lifelong pacifist, Rankin was criticized for being one of 50 delegates to vote against the U.S. entering the war against Germany. "I wish to stand for my country," she said, "but I cannot vote for war." Years later, she would add, "I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it."

During her term, she pushed for improved working conditions for laborers, and succeeded in winning shorter work days for employees of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

Rankin campaigning in Montana
After leaving office, she remained active in the political arena, lobbying for child labor protections, social welfare programs for women and children, and pacifism. When her efforts in the late 1930s to urge the country to pursue a diplomatic solution rather than prepare for war proved ineffective, she decided to run for Congress again.

At age 60, Rankin defeated the incumbent in the primary and a former representative in the general election to reclaim her seat in the House. In December 1941, she became the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan. When a similar declaration against Germany and Italy came to a vote, she abstained, and the vote in favor of the resolution was considered unanimous.

Rankin spoke against war at the
National American Woman Suffrage
Association in 1917
In later interviews, Rankin stated she had no regrets for her stance. “If you're against war, you're against war regardless of what happens. It's a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute."

Rankin’s courage in voting her conscience, even though it made her unpopular, was applauded by many political leaders, including John F. Kennedy. She also inspired a new generation of pacifists, civil rights activists, and feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s. She protested against the Vietnam War and even considered running for Congress for a third time in 1971 to enhance the reach for her message. But she was 91 and on-going ailments made such a campaign impossible.

Jeannette Rankin died in 1973. Her ranch near Missoula, Montana, where she grew up and continued to live most of her life, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.