POLITICS

The U.S. Elected The First Woman To Congress 100 Years Ago

The anniversary comes one day before America could elect its first woman president.

The United States could make history by electing its first woman president on Tuesday, which echoes a different landmark the country reached exactly one hundred years ago — electing the first woman to Congress.

The people of Montana elected Jeannette Rankin (R) to the House of Representatives on Nov. 7, 1916. Born and raised in the state, Rankin worked as a social worker before committing herself to the fight for women’s suffrage.

Running a progressive campaign, Rankin devoted herself to pacifism. She became the only congressperson in U.S. history to vote against American involvement in World War I and World War II.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last,” Rankin said after her victory.

Rankin’s election to the House was especially historic, coming four years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Black women, though, still faced systemic voter suppression until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Failing to win reelection in 1918, Rankin moved back to Montana and continued her women’s rights and anti-war activism by giving speeches across the country on behalf of organizations like the Women’s Peace Union and National Council for Prevention of War.

There can be no compromise with war,” Rankin said in a 1929 speech. “It cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.”

She won back her seat in Congress in 1940, and was the only person in both the House and the Senate to vote against the declaration of war with Japan, that came the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

“As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else there,” Rankin said.

Among a long line of women who paved the way for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s nomination, Rankin was one of the first to be a part of the federal government.

Sixteen years after Rankin was elected, Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-Ark.) won her campaign to become the first elected female senator. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. In 1993, Janet Reno, who died Monday, was appointed as the first female attorney general.

As of 2015, women hold almost 20 percent of seats in Congress, despite totaling over 50 percent of the country’s population — a significant, but slow increase from 100 years ago when Rankin took her seat.

Clinton said to a private crowd in Canada in 2013 she hopes there will be a woman president in her lifetime — by the end of the day Tuesday, she could fulfill that hope herself.

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