Rankin stood firmly alone on Dec. 8, 1941
Jeannette Rankin had to find refuge in a phone booth after voting against a resolution of war on Dec. 8, 1941.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

"At a meeting of the Woman's Club in Orchard Homes, you promised not to vote for war except in case of aggression. The United States was maliciously attacked by Japan. Your vote does not represent the women of this club who helped put you in office."

The angry telegram, signed by the Missoula Woman's Club, was among hundreds to arrive in Jeannette Rankin's office in Washington, D.C., in December of 1941.

It's hard to imagine the isolation Rankin must have felt on Dec. 8, 1941, an isolation that went beyond 470 to 1.

That was the vote count in Congress, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, approving a resolution of war against Japan.

Rankin, a Republican from Missoula, cast the lone dissenting vote. A wire photo carried by newspapers the next day showed the 61-year-old Rankin peering from a telephone booth in the House corridors, where she found refuge after the vote and called for an escort.

Reaction to the "nay" vote in a stirred-up Washington was instant and intense, as she must have expected it would be. The first female elected to a national office in a democratic nation, Rankin had cast an emotional vote against entering World War I in 1917.

The outcry was equally vitriolic in the hinterlands, including here in Rankin's home state and town, as she again said "no" to war. She was called a Hitler aide and a Nazi, a traitor and a disgrace.

"We imagine that by now Miss Rankin understands that she did not speak for the people of Montana … so rapid and so vocal has been the state's reaction," editorialized the Missoulian on Dec. 11.

Dan Whetstone of Cut Bank, a fellow Republican and a member of the party's national committee, called on Rankin to "redeem Montana's honor" by changing her vote.

James Annin of Columbus, state commander of the American Legion, demanded her resignation.

The censure of the Woman's Club in Rankin's hometown must have cut especially deep. Her legacy of empowering and activating women was established much earlier in the century, when she helped lead suffragette movements in Montana and the nation.

John Melcher was in high school in Iowa in 1941, and joined the Army when he graduated. He was keenly aware of Rankin's vote and legacy by the time he launched a 20-year career as a U.S. representative and senator from Montana in 1969.

"She stood on principle, and while I probably would not have done the same thing in her shoes, you have to admire somebody who is that principled to maintain that unpopular of a position and face all the heat," said Melcher, who lives in Missoula.

By 1941, Rankin was a seasoned, hardened, complex and feisty pacifist.

She'd been born on what is now Dennis Washington's Grant Creek Ranch north of Missoula in 1880, and split her first 22 years between the ranch and the family mansion on Madison Street in Missoula. The house was ultimately torn down when the Madison Street Bridge was built.

Rankin graduated from Missoula County High School and, in 1902, the University of Montana. She returned to Montana in 1912, after growing into activist roles on both coasts, to take up the cause of women's suffrage before her election to the House of Representatives in 1916.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on a Sunday. On Monday, recruitment offices in Missoula were swamped. A record 12 men enlisted in the Navy that first day, and some 75 ex-servicemen dropped in or phoned. The Army office had to reject four or five veterans of World War I "because of dependency or over-age."

A long Associated Press story in that Tuesday's Missoulian reported President Franklin Roosevelt's address to Congress, when he famously called Dec. 7, 1941 "a date which will live in infamy." The story jumped to an inside page, detailing what there was of a debate in the House.

"At intervals between speeches, Miss Rankin clamored for recognition. Speaker (Sam) Rayburn steadfastly looked the other way," the story said. "Even after the roll call had begun, she was endeavoring to make herself heard. Rayburn stopped her with a reminder that a House roll call could not be interrupted for speeches."

Immediately below the final paragraph was the headline for a local story: "300 Volunteer For Civilian Defense Work."

The war effort was in full gear.

The Missoulian weighed in on Rankin's vote on Thursday. It reminded readers of her opposition to entering the first world war in 1917. Then, she had been joined by 49 other dissenting votes, all of them male.

There were seven other women in Congress in 1941. All joined the chorus for war.

"This time Š America had been attacked, treacherously and tremendously, when it came Miss Rankin's turn to vote," the unnamed local editor wrote. "As was the case before, her negative vote could have no effect upon the decision, save only to indicate that there was lack of utter unanimity."

War, the opinion piece said, was "the unwelcome thing that had to be done, distasteful but still necessary, obligatory. So, we feel very certain, it was something within Miss Rankin herself that prompted her negation."

Rankin, spurned from entering the debate on the House floor before the vote, sat down later that day and wrote an open letter to the people of her district explaining why she voted as she did. The letter appeared on Page 1 of the Missoulian the same day as the editorial.

"Sending our boys to the Orient will not protect this country," Rankin wrote. "We are all for every measure which will mean defense for our land, but taking our Army and Navy across thousands of miles of ocean to fight and die certainly cannot come under the head of protecting our shores."

Rankin decried the haste of such a monumental vote, "based on brief, unconfirmed radio reports," after just 18 minutes of debate. A unanimous vote for war, she said, "would have been a totalitarian vote, one not in keeping with our American way of life."

James Lopach and Jean Luckowski, in their 2005 biography "Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman," point out Rankin's animosity toward Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, whom she claimed duped the United States into war.

She alluded to as much when she wrote: "It may be that it is right for us to enter the conflict with Japan. If so, it is my belief that all the facts surrounding the present situation should be brought into the open and given to the Congress and the American people."

In casting her vote, Rankin concluded: "I voted my convictions and redeemed my campaign pledges. I feel I voted as the mothers would have had me vote."

Rankin, who died in 1973, led two marches in Washington, D.C., protesting the Vietnam War, the second at age 90.

It's overlooked that Rankin threw her efforts into supporting World War II once it began, pointed out Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula.

Rankin introduced the GI Bill to Congress, ensuring post-service education and benefits to veterans and actively promoting war bonds.

A statue in the United States Capitol was dedicated to Rankin in 1985, and Missoula has a college hall, a city park and the peace center in her name. A statue of Rankin in Montana's Capitol was dedicated in 1980.

Rankin remains an icon for peace - and is sometimes still a lightning rod.

"I've gotten some hate mail here at the peace center, calling her a coward and calling us cowards for walking in her footsteps, and calling attention to something Missoula would rather forget," said Mulligan-Dague.

"I know there are some folks who still feel that way now. It's a strong thing when the drums of war sound. Something happens to some people and it becomes the emotion of patriotism and nationalism and all these things that get thrown in there."

The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center's mission, she added, "is not to be the liberal center of Missoula."

"Our mission," she said, "is to bridge the gap between all the opinions and find that place in the middle that we call peace. If there are people that don't understand that, I still have work to do."

To read a Missoulian editorial and a letter to the editor from Jeanette Rankin about her opposition to World War II click here.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com

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