#TBT: The first woman elected to Congress

Story highlights

  • Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress
  • "But I won't be the last," she said
  • She was correct

To mark Women's History Month, our #TBT series is highlighting female politicians who broke glass ceilings.

(CNN)Being the first of something means being alone in some respects. Jeannette Rankin knew that very well.

Rankin was not only the first woman elected to Congress, but she was also the only member of Congress to vote against entering both WWI and WWII.
Jeannette Rankin was born in Montana in 1880. Before becoming a Republican congresswoman, she went to school at what are now the University of Montana, Columbia and the University of Washington.
She became a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association and helped push for women's rights to vote in her home state.
Credentials of Jeannette Rankin, December 4, 1916.
It was in 1916 -- four years before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote nationwide -- that Rankin first ran for office. At the time, Montana's seats in the US House were at-large, so she won her seat after coming in second place. With their first vote in a federal election, the women of Montana helped send the first elected woman to Congress.
It wasn't Rankin's work on the Committee on Woman Suffrage or the Committee on Public Lands that garnered her the most attention. Instead, it was her voting record. A firm pacifist, Rankin was the only one of 50 to vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917 -- and obviously she was the only woman to do so.
Some suffragists saw Rankin's unpopular vote as a potential blow to the movement, but Rankin brought both issues into the debate on a bill that would have granted women's suffrage.
"How shall we explain to [women] the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?" Rankin said in January 1918.
The bill she was arguing for passed the House, but was shot down in the Senate. The 19th Amendment would, however, be passed by both houses the following year, and ratified in 1920.
Rankin decided to run for Senate in 1918 and ran as an independent after losing the Republican primary. She lost the race, turning instead to the pursuit of peace activism for the next two decades.
With the US on the brink of another world war in 1940, Rankin came out of political retirement and once again ran for a House seat in Montana. After winning and returning to Washington, Rankin fought to keep American troops out of Europe. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Congress was tasked with deciding whether or not to go to war.
Leading up to the vote on the declaration of war against Japan, Rankin asked to be recognized to debate the resolution. Speaker Sam Rayburn failed to recognize her. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Rankin was never allowed to speak, and in the meantime, according to the House's account of the day, other members tried to get her to vote for it or abstain. She voted no. The final tally was 388-1.
Tally sheet of the vote in the House of Representatives for a declaration of war against Japan, December 8, 1941.
"As a woman, I can't go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else," Rankin said.
It was not a popular opinion — several newspaper accounts say that, upon leaving the floor, Rankin was met with hisses and boos. There are photographs of Rankin sitting in a telephone booth awaiting a police escort back to her office.
Rankin retired from Congress after that session, continuing to advocate for peace in the years that followed. She died in 1973 and, according to her House biography, was considering another run for Congress spurred by the Vietnam War.