Dawn was still hours away in Washington, D.C., on Good Friday, April 6, 1917, when Wellington Rankin and his big sister, Jeannette, walked home from the Capitol.
She was weeping, which should have been no big deal after what she’d just been through.
Following a long debate that began the previous morning and stretched on until 3 a.m., Rankin, 36-year-old suffragist and Missoula native, had cast her first vote in the U.S. House of Representatives as the nation’s and the world’s first female national legislator.
On the matter of President Woodrow Wilson’s request for authorization to declare war on Germany, Rankin had said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”
The measure passed overwhelmingly anyway, and America geared up for its part in the first world war.
“Think what you’ve done,” an exasperated Wellington Rankin, Jeannette’s financier and campaign director, persisted as they entered her apartment on California Street.
His sister’s response, according to biographer Kevin Giles: “Wellington, you know I’m not interested in that. All I’m interested in is what they will say in 50 years.”
Thursday marks the 100-year anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I, and Jeannette Rankin again begs attention.
“We think that her vote needs interpretation,” Jim Lopach said this week in the living room of the home he and Jean Luckowski share in the Slant Street area.
Both are retired University of Montana professors, he in political science, she in education. Together they researched and wrote the 2005 biography, “Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman.”
The quick-draw summary of that woman is this: Oldest child of a prominent Missoula family, suffragette, first woman in Congress, voted against U.S. participation in both world wars, passionately engaged in a lifetime of pacifism that lasted through much of the Vietnam War. When she died in California, Rankin’s ashes were scattered in an ocean called Pacific.
Reality is much more complex, of course, and what Lopach and Luckowski found and wrote about “the enigma of Jeannette Rankin” didn’t please everyone.
“She’s not Saint Jeannette up on that pedestal,” Lopach noted.
“For me that makes her much more interesting,” Luckowski said. “It just reminds me again and again that nothing about Jeannette was simple.”
The authors say among the myths that need busting is that Rankin voted against entering World War I because of her pacifistic tendencies.
It’s true, Lopach said, that Rankin entered the Congressional race in 1940 specifically to raise her voice and vote against U.S. entry into World War II. She cast the lone ‘no’ vote in all of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“She was an absolute pacifist by that time,” he said.
Lopach and Luckowski say that Rankin’s 1917 vote, on the other hand, was explained not by her passion against war but by her feminist ideals. She clearly felt her historic role in Congress was to represent the women and families of America.
“I thought I must vote as I did in order to make a protest against war for the women of the future,” Rankin said later.
A key national crusader for the women’s right to vote, which Montana became the 11th state to pass in 1914, Rankin helped draft a national suffrage amendment in 1918 that passed the House but failed in the Senate. A year later, after her term expired, a similar measure passed both chambers, and in August 1920 the 19th Amendment became the law of the land.
But in the wee hours of April 6, 1917, Rankin was the prize in a tug-of-war between two feminist factions. The National American Woman Suffrage Association was headed by Carrie Chapman Catt, the Congressional Union by Alice Paul.
Paul’s group was comprised of the younger feminists who pushed for a national amendment.
“They were probably the pacifists,” Luckowski said.
Catt and the older, more conservative NAWSA favored “state-by-state” suffrage. Catt didn’t like Rankin, Lopach said, and “that really came out when she ran in 1918. Catt opposed Rankin.”
“Jeannette had worked with them for several years across the country promoting suffrage and was very successful,” Luckowski said. “And then they couldn’t believe that she was the one who got elected. It should have been someone from the East Coast, someone with a better pedigree, someone from their circles.”
Now Catt made it clear her belief that a vote against war would set back the women’s movement.
"That,” said Luckowski, “was a big source of tension for her, those two groups of feminists.”
Then there was Wellington.
A prominent Helena attorney and state Republican leader, he served in the U.S. Army during the war and became Montana’s Attorney General afterward.
“He was a big deal, he really was, especially in Montana,” Lopach said.
Four years his sister’s junior, Wellington Rankin proved a master strategist when it came to her campaign. But his own ambitions for national office met with abject failure. He ran half a dozen times for either the House or U.S. Senate and lost each attempt, Lopach said.
Wellington was Jeannette’s primary speechwriter and arranged a lucrative national lecture tour for her after she was elected. The tour was interrupted when President Wilson called a special session of Congress to vote on the war issue. One of the last stops was at Carnegie Hall in New York, at which time Wellington set up a dinner visit to ex-president Theodore Roosevelt at his Oyster Bay home on Long Island.
Wellington hoped Roosevelt would encourage Jeannette to support war should a vote occur, Lopach said, but the subject never came up. He then joined his sister in Washington to convince her that a negative vote would destroy her politically.
Clashing feminist groups, a beloved brother and campaign promises all came crashing down on Jeannette Rankin in the predawn hours of April 6. She was subjected, said friend and fellow suffragist Harriet Laidlaw, to “one of the most terrible mental struggles any woman ever had.”
“All of the important influences in her life were pressed upon her, not in unison but as opposing forces,” Lopach and Luckowski wrote.
When the first roll call came around, Rankin passed. She then broke protocol on the second roll call by giving her short speech instead of saying “aye” or “nay.”
Despite the outcry that followed, Luckowski said the Rankins smoothed things over in succeeding months.
Jeannette made speeches supporting the sale of war bonds, and voted in favor of the explosive issue of instituting a draft.
In December 1917 another war declaration vote came up. This time the subject was Austria, and it passed the House 365-1.
Sick from food poisoning, Rankin climbed out of bed against doctor’s orders, went up the hill and cast her vote – for war. The sole opposing vote was from Meyer London, a Socialist from New York.