Today in Feminist History: Jeanette Rankin Votes ‘NO’ (April 6, 1917)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


April 6, 1917: Representative Jeannette Rankin’s “No” vote at three o’clock this morning on the U.S. Declaration of War against the Imperial German Government was defended today by suffrage leaders—even those who would have voted differently had they been in the House.

Carrie Chapman Catt, on the left, and Representative Jeannette Rankin (Republican of Montana) on the balcony of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s office in Washington, D.C., on April 2nd, the same day Rankin was sworn into Congress.

It was clearly a difficult decision for the Rankin—the only woman ever to serve in Congress, and who was sworn in just four days ago. She was one of less than 12 House Members who did not vote on the first roll call. But on the second call she rose to her feet and said:

“I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

Though 49 men also voted against the resolution, the fact that she was the only woman to vote on it focused attention on her and her fellow suffragists as well.

Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, summed up the feelings of many. When asked if she thought Rankin missed an opportunity to further the suffrage cause by voting as she did, Catt replied:

“I do not believe Miss Rankin was guided by any such consideration. You must remember that Miss Rankin was not voting for the suffragists of the nation; she represents Montana. But I do not think any higher tribute could be paid to a person in public office than to say that he voted as he thought he should vote.

“Miss Rankin has done nothing to be ashamed of, far from it, and she can be counted upon to do nothing that she need be ashamed of. She did her duty as her duty appeared to her. It was not for any one else to make her decision for her … I predicted two weeks ago that no matter how Miss Rankin voted she would be criticized. If she voted for war, she would offend the pacifists; if she voted against it, she would offend the militarists.”

Suffrage activist Harriet Burton Laidlaw, a personal friend of Rankin’s, who was present in the House Gallery said:

“While I should have liked her to vote differently, she did her duty as she saw it after one of the most terrible mental struggles any woman ever had.”

But Laidlaw also wanted to set the record straight about Rankin’s demeanor during the vote:

“It is not true that Miss Rankin wept, fainted, or had to be carried from her seat. She was perfectly composed. She had been asked by so many of her friends to vote for the resolution; at the same time she was gripped by a desire to express a woman’s horror of war and her principles against it. When she finally voted, she voted with intense sincerity, knowing that she was not doing the popular thing, but refusing to allow herself to be governed by motives of expediency. She just couldn’t vote for war.”

On February 25, the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s leaders pledged their support and services to the Government in case of war. Today they are also showing loyalty to a fellow suffragist, and the idea of voting for principle, not popularity.


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.