Seventy-four years ago today, the United States declared war on the Empire of Japan. The day before, December 7, 1941, the Japanese had bombed the US Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, as well as Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Nine hours earlier, the United Kingdom declared war on the Land of the Rising Sun – partially due to the attacks on their territories, but mostly due to Winston Churchill’s promise to declare war “within the hour” of a Japanese attack on the US.
The American nation entered into the fray of World War II with the vote after President Franklin Roosevelt declared December 7th a day that would “live in infamy,” and requested the declaration of war.
The Senate acting rapidly – a true Unicorn, I know – passed the bill 82 to 0.
The House of Representatives followed a few hours later with a vote of 388 to 1.
Yep, there’s always one.
Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist, the first woman elected to Congress, and a Republican, cast the only vote against the decision to go to war.
There were hisses from the gallery of the great hall, and her colleagues asked that she change or abstain so the resolution could be unanimous. But, she held her ground, stating that “…as a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
After the vote, an angry mob followed her from the Capitol building and she took refuge in a telephone booth (…please tell me I don’t have to do a blog post on telephone booths…) until the Capitol Police could rescue her!
Two days later when the vote to declare war against the rest of the Axis powers, Germany and Italy came to the floor, Rankin did abstain; her nine female colleagues voted in favor.
So, who was this lone wolf, this dissenter, this pacifist?
Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress in the United States. Hailing from the state of Montana, Rankin’s campaign was funded by her wealthy and influential brother, also a Republican, who travelled with her as she crossed the sparsely populated state rallying support at train station, city streets, potluck suppers, and in school houses.
It paid off; she won by 7,000 votes!
Forgive me, but we need to jump back in time to explain Jeannette a tad.
Taking over at home when her mother became too ill to care for her seven children, Jeannette became a surrogate mom, sewing their clothes, caring for her complaining mother, and playing nurse to her father when he was dying of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Her brother, Wellington, took over the finances of the family.
Struggling to make a life of her own and a mediocre student, she partied her way to a degree in biology at the University of Montana. Squeaking by in school, always one for a good time and financially set, she had plenty of suitors, but announced early on she had no plans to be a “baby factory’ like her mother.
Refusing to marry, she reached for the political stars and said, “I saw that if we were to have decent laws for children, sanitary jails, and safe food supplies, women would have to vote.”
Her time in Congress wasn’t lonely; Fiorello LaGuardia, freshman Congressman and future mayor of New York City, made it clear that if she’d have him, he’d marry her. Realizing married women had few rights, she opted to stay single.
When elected, she said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” During her first term, the State of Montana abandoned the “at large” seats for Congress and created two districts, her turf was heavily populated with Democrats, and she lost her seat.
She was re-elected in 1940. Her two terms in office occurred with US entry in to both the Great War and World War II.
In 1917, she joined 50 other Congressmen (and 5 Senators) to vote against the US entry into World War I, saying then, “I wish to stand for my country, but I cannot vote for war.” Many, many years later in an interview, she stated, “…I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”
The Speculator Mine disaster occurred during her first term leaving 168 miners dead and bringing on a strike and protest. Her intervention was met with silence by the mining companies and her proposed legislation failed.
Rankin was a driving force in the suffragist movement in the US – when she was elected, unrestricted universal enfranchisement for women didn’t exist.
In 1918 she opened the debate in Congress for a Constitutional amendment granting suffrage to women, which passed in the House but was defeated by the Senate. But, in 1919, the resolution passed both chambers and became the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; her vote of Yea made her the only woman to ever vote to give women the right to vote.
Though all of her initiatives failed while she was there, most eventually became law.
While out of Congress, she lived in Georgia on a farm with neither electricity nor plumbing. She traveled the nation stumping for the Women’s Peace Union and the National Council for the Prevention of War. She founded the Georgia PEACE Society (not be confused with the Georgia PEACH Society) which died a quick death with the onset of World War II.
She stayed busy between terms, working as a lobbyist and field secretary for several political organizations.
At the age of 60, she was re-elected to the House defeating an incumbent anti-Semite in the primary, and a former representative in the general election. While in Congress, she was appointed to several committees.
All other accomplishments aside, she’s known as the lone wolf who opposed our declaration of war on Japan. There were probably a hundred or so others who would have liked to do the same, but pressure from home and peers prohibited their courage.
In 1943, during the midst of the great world conflict that would see the fall of Japan and Germany, she decided not to seek re-election and was succeeded by Democrat Mike Mansfield.
Over the next two decades she became a world traveler with several visits to India where she studied Gandhi’s pacifist teachings.
As the peace movement of the 1960s arose, Rankin was an inspiration to many. The war in Viet Nam brought her to the spotlight and in 1968, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a coalition of women’s peace groups, organized an anti-war march in D.C.
It was the largest march by women since the 1913 woman’s suffrage parade. Rankin led 5,000 marchers from Union Station to the US Capitol. They presented a peace petition to the Speaker of the House, John McCormack of Massachusetts who couldn’t find a shredder fast enough!
Not happy with the way things were going in 1972, Rankin – in her nineties – toyed with the idea of a third campaign for a House seat. Her health wouldn’t allow her to continue.
Rankin died at 93 in Carmel, California. She left her estate, including the severe farm in Georgia, to help “mature, unemployed women workers.”
Her foundation eventually became The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund which awards annual educational scholarship to low-income women 35 and older. The Fund has awarded $1.8 million scholarships to more than 700 women since her death.
Though many then and now disagreed with her vote back in 1941, history tells us that reasoning never wavered, her stance never changed, and her goal was very clear.
Although her pacifism and feminism have brought her dangerously near deification, we must admit, she was a lonely voice in a wilderness against war.