On December 8, 1941, America was still shocked by news of war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the day before had been “a date which will live in infamy” because of the “unprovoked and dastardly attack” by Japan on Pearl Harbor. He noted that it was not a single event, but a pattern of attacks that included Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam, Wake, and Midway Islands. In his speech, he interpreted “the will of the Congress … to defend ourselves to the uttermost.” Congress responded with a vote to declare war that made a still-famous front page of The New York Times.
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Tremendous suffering and a smoldering need for revenge permeated the days following the attack, but something important is often lost. The congressional vote was not unanimous. Roosevelt did not understand the complete will of Congress. One person, filled with a seldom equaled strength of conviction, rose to challenge war. One single vote was cast against the declaration. One person said, “No.” That person was Jeannette Rankin, a representative from Montana. In addition to being the sole dissenter, history also records that she was the first woman in Congress.
Referring the Resolution to a Committee
Representative Rankin had been scheduled to speak at an event in Detroit on that day. She left by train on Sunday evening, December 7, for the event and took a radio along to follow the fate-filled news. When the radio announced that Congress was to hear Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war, she got off the train in Pittsburgh and returned to Washington, D.C. She arrived at the capitol about noon and took a prominent seat in the first row of the House chamber for the important address.
When the president finished his remarks, the House took up consideration of House Joint Resolution 254, the formal declaration of war. Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), Speaker of the House, asked, “Is a second demanded?” Jeannette Rankin rose. “I object,” she insisted, but the speaker overruled her. “No objection is in order,” he said
In a 1974 oral history, Rankin explained the purpose behind her objection. House rules allow any resolution to be referred to committee upon any member’s request. She wanted to ask for committee referral to “remove the war vote from the passion of the moment and have it at least considered so both sides of the issues could be brought out.” By refusing her objection, Speaker Rayburn effectively violated standard procedure and, as she later claimed, denied her the First Amendment right of free speech.
Objection overruled, a short discussion took place on the House floor. Then, a vote on the resolution was requested. Jeannette Rankin rose just after the question was called. “Mr. Speaker.” Rayburn ignored her and continued, “Those who favor taking this vote by the yeas and nays will rise and remain standing until counted.”
Rankin responded. “Mr. Speaker, I would like to he heard.” Speaker Rayburn continued, “The yeas and nays have been ordered. The question is, Will the House suspend the rules and pass the resolution?”
Rankin tried a third time. “Mr. Speaker, a point of order.” Rayburn responded, “A roll call may not be interrupted.”
When the vote came and her name was called, she answered “No.” Some historians claim that she elaborated on her vote by saying, “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.” The Congressional Record does not document this comment. Catcalls, hisses, and boos from the House floor as well as the packed gallery greeted her vote. Colleagues beseeched her to change her mind. However, by 1:10 pm she was still adamant, and the vote stood as recorded, 82 to 0 in the Senate and 388 to 1 in the House.
“Montana is 110 Percent Against You!”
Word of Rankin’s vote escaped the chambers and circulated among the mass of people who had flocked to the capitol. The crowd accosted her as she left the building, pushing toward her and shouting obscenities. She ducked into a phone booth and called capitol police for an escort to her office. There, she remained behind locked doors.
She called her brother, Wellington, in Helena, and his response was, “Montana is 110 percent against you!” She wrote an explanation of her vote to her Montana constituents, citing a campaign pledge to the “mothers and fathers of Montana … to prevent their sons from being slaughtered on foreign battlefields,” and ended her letter with “I feel I voted as the mothers would have had me vote.”
Response from radio commentators and newspaper columnists swiftly vilified Rankin. Many called for her resignation, and some of her constituents demanded her recall. A few accused her of disloyalty or treason. Montana newspapers expressed their dissatisfaction. The Miles City Daily Star of December 10, 1941, offered “humble and respectful apologies to the rest of the United States” for her vote. The Choteau Acantha of December 22 suggested a public spanking on the floor of the House with an old-fashioned hairbrush. On December 14, the Great Falls Tribune dubbed her “Japanette Rankin.” Despite the public reaction, Rankin was never apologetic for her vote.
On Thursday, December 11, when Congress considered separate resolutions of war on Germany and Italy, Rankin simply voted “present” for each roll call, a softer form of “no.” Her convictions and votes made her an outcast in Congress and left her to serve out her term with no chance of reelection. She took part in few floor debates, concentrating on minimizing the war’s effect on Montanans by, for example, strengthening draft deferments.
The Reason Behind Rankin’s Vote
Why did Rankin commit political suicide? Four theories have been advanced to explain her vote.
Some historians have taken Rankin at her words about women in war service and voting for mothers and chalked up her vote to a feminist stance. That view harmonizes well with Rankin’s suffragette activities. She had worked tirelessly in many organizations to achieve women’s voting rights. She helped North Dakota women gain the right to vote in 1913. She was successful in 1914 in her home state of Montana. On the strength of that notoriety and probably as a result of women voters, she was elected to the House of Representatives from Montana, serving from 1917 to 1919. That was her first of two discontinuous terms in Congress and the one that made her the first woman in Congress. On the national stage, she promoted ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and in 1920 it gave women the right to vote everywhere in the United States. As a result of her work as a suffragette and for becoming the first woman in Congress, the National Organization of Women honored Jeannette Rankin at age 91 in 1972 as “the world’s outstanding living feminist.”
Another theory attributes Rankin’s vote to her humanitarianism and interest in social causes. During her post-college years, Jeannette read widely on social issues. A budding interest in social activism drew her to New York City and a Master’s program in social work at the prestigious New York School of Philanthropy. In her after-school afternoons, she engaged in practical social work that showed her the juxtaposition of crippling poverty and lavish wealth, the poor care given orphans, overcrowding in jails, and the lack of public sanitary facilities. She developed a thesis that a woman’s maternal instincts were valuable outside the home toward the improvement of society.
When working within the existing social work system proved unsatisfactory, Rankin took her activism in the political direction to aim for systemic changes. In 1917, after Anaconda Copper Company’s Granite Mountain mineshaft burst into flames and took the lives of 167 Montana miners, Jeannette rallied for better working conditions. Rankin’s concern for social ills and promotion of social actions led her to advocate that the foundation of democracy was human rights rather than property rights, as was then commonly believed. This took root when she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union as vice president. At Rankin’s death, she left a portion of her estate to assist mature, unemployed women workers. That endowment launched the Jeannette Rankin Woman’s Scholarship Fund.
An Outspoken Pacifist
In an episode of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered titled “The Lone War Dissenter,” Walter Cronkite attributed Rankin’s vote to her being an “outspoken pacifist.” One of Rankin’s most famous quotes is: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” She perceived the violence and death of war as tragedy and never as triumph. Jeanmarie Simpson’s play and 2009 movie A Single Woman traces the root of Rankin’s pacifism to her learning of the Indian slaughter at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, when Rankin was 10 years old. Rankin recalled: “As the Indians came out of their tents, the American soldiers shot them—shot the Medicine Man and anyone who came out. It was a most disgraceful act, the most outrageous thing that could happen.”