April 6, 2017

Jeannette Rankin and Her War Vote

by Natasha Hollenbach, Digital Services Technician

On April 2, 1917, Jeannette Rankin, the woman from Montana, made a triumphant entrance into Washington, DC as the first woman elected to Congress. Four days later the mood had changed drastically as she sat in the House with her fellow representatives debating the issue of US entry into World War I.

Catalog # 944-480
Jeannette Rankin, April 2, 1917
First appearance in Washington
Photographer Unidentified

The depiction of her vote commonly told today is well represented in Montana: Stories of the Land [1] which describes the scene like this:
“When her turn came, Rankin stood up. “I want to stand by my country but I cannot vote for war,” she said. Only a few other members of Congress shared her view, and the resolution to enter World War I passed overwhelmingly.” 
This simple depiction is quickly overturned by even a cursory look at the newspapers of the day who gave shockingly variable descriptions of her vote. [2] Was she weeping, sobbing, or trembling? Did she sit back down, disappear out a side door, or carried out? Did her vote provoke cheers or disdain? Even her now-famous quote wasn’t consistently reported, with at least one paper declaring that she never actually voted at all [2c] and another having her say “No matter what stand my country may take in this, I cannot cast my vote for war.” [2f]

Being the first woman in Congress meant that her votes and opinions never reflected on her alone. Unlike her male colleagues who voted against war (49 in the house and 6 in the senate), the newspapers declared that her vote would impact the national suffrage movement. [3] Opponents of suffrage declared that she proved that women couldn’t be entrusted with issues of national importance. Proponents of suffrage reacted in one of two ways. They either disavowed her actions or since one of the main arguments against women in politics was that it would coarsen them, they pointed out that Jeannette’s vote proved that women in politics could still retain womanly attitudes.

However, the press reaction is only part of the story. The correspondence sent to Jeannette Rankin both before and after the vote by constituents and other Americans (usually women) from across the country offer a more complicated reaction to her vote. [4] While there are some letters in opposition, their number is hardly overwhelming. Most of the letters supported her vote and even some of those who oppose her vote applaud her courage in voting as she did. The first notable observation are the two form letters, one for those opposed and one for those in support, that she sent in response. The striking comment to those who wrote in opposition declared that “…the letters and telegrams that come to me from Montana were sixteen to one against the war resolution.” It quickly becomes apparent that by the writer’s count the overwhelming feeling in their section is identical to the writer’s. While the newspapers focus on suffrage the correspondence is more varied. First they often criticize the press reporting.

From top to bottom:
Excerpt from letter by Byron DeForest, Great Falls, Montana. August 9, 1917. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 9. 
Excerpt from letter by  Mrs. DeLoss, Ekalaka, Montana. April 23, 1917. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 5. 
Excerpt from letter by  Ella and W. A. Grandey, Whitehall, Montana. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 5. 
Excerpt from letter by  R. J. Whitaker, Missoula, Montana. March 29, 1917. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 7. 

Second, the newspapers tend to take it for granted that the war is justified, while the letters show much less uniformity of opinion. Many openly question both whether the US ever acted as a neutral power and whether, even if the justifications for war were accurate, they are worth going to war over.

From top to bottom:
Excerpt from letter by Ella and W. A. Grandey. March 27, 1917. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 9. 
Excerpt from letter by Laura Booth Hall, Ekalaka, Montana. April 5, 1917. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 4. 

Particularly interesting are those who wrote multiple times. The best example is Ralph E. Courtnage [5] who wrote to Jeannette on April 12th strongly registering his criticism of her. She responded with her usual form letter, and a delightful thing happened (from a historian’s point of view). He wrote her again on June 15th. This time expressing regret over his earlier tone and concerns about liberty, security of law and the power of the president, clearly referencing the attitudes and actions which led to the sedition law. This continuing dialogue about the changing issues and attitudes reminds the reader that the war vote was only a moment in time connected to both the past and future of those living it.

References: 
[1] Montana: Stories of the Land. Chapter 16 – Montana and World War I, 1914-1918, pg. 315. http://svcalt.mt.gov/education/textbook/Chapter16/Chapter16.pdf 
[2] a sampling of articles showing the range of how the vote was described (all articles available on ChroniclingAmerica.)
     a. Columbus Commercial (Mississippi), April 8, 1917. 
     b. Topeka State Journal, April 6, 1917. 
     c. Ward County Independent (North Dakota), April 12, 1917.
     d. Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), April 6, 1917. 
     e. “Woman Votes No.” Free Trader-Journal (Illinois), April 6, 1917. {2 clips} 
     f. “By a Vote of Three Hundred Seventy-Three to Fifty The House Casts Lot With The Powers of the Entente”.       
          Hawaiian Gazette, April 6, 1917. 
     g. “Dramatic Scene.” Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat (Iowa), April 6, 1917. 
[3] sampling of articles showing reactions of both suffrage opponents and proponents (all articles available on ChroniclingAmerica.)
     a. “A Hard Jolt for Suffrage”. St. Joseph Observer (Missouri), May 19, 1917. 
     b. [Kansas City Star] Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), May 4, 1917. 
     c. “Miss Rankin’s Weakness.” Ogden Standard (Utah), April 11, 1917.
     d. [Billings Journal and Butte Miner] Daily Missoulian, April 11, 1917.
     e. [Comments by Charles A. Krause]. El Paso Herald, April 11, 1917.
     f. [Lewistown Argus.] Fallon County Times, May 10 1917. 
     g. [Red Lodge Civic League] Daily Missoulian, April 16, 1917.
     h. “Miss Rankin’s Vote Own View—Suffragist”. East Oregonian, April 13, 1917.
     i. “The Sobbing Woman.” Evening Times Republican (Iowa), April 30, 1917.
     j. [Record-Herald of Helena] Daily Missoulian, April 14, 1917.
     k. Jenkins, Alice. “Miss Rankin’s “Sensibility.”” Evening Star (DC), April 18, 1917. 
     l. “Miss Rankin’s Vote.” West Virginian, April 7, 1917.
     m. “The Case of Miss Rankin.” Daily Missoulian, May 11, 1917.[4] MC 147, Box 10, Folders 4-10 
[5] Ralph E. Courtnage, Great Falls, Montana. April 12, 1917 & June 15, 1917. MC 147, Box 10, Folder 4.

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