Power  /  Journal Article

The U.S. Representative Who Tried to Outlaw War

Jeanette Rankin was the first woman to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And she once tried to outlaw war.
Saron Sprung/Wikimedia Commons

Jeannette Rankin was a trailblazer—the first woman to speak before the Montana state legislature, an instrumental part of winning women’s suffrage, and the first woman to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. On the 100th anniversary of her first day in Congress, it’s worth remembering that she once tried to outlaw war.

As Harriet Hyman Alonso explains, Rankin once headed the Women’s Peace Union, a group that waged a 17-year-long battle for a Constitutional amendment banning war. Overwork and frustration had beset the group’s founding members, largely middle-aged suffragists who, in the words of Alonso, “simply did not trust younger, untrained activists to carry on.” The terms “founder’s syndrome” or “burnout” didn’t exist at the time, but the group knew it needed a new leader.

They decided on Rankin, who had proven herself in suffrage and government. During her time in the House, she was one of 50 people who cast votes against America’s entry into World War I. She was mercilessly mocked and reviled for that public stand.

By 1929, when Rankin was recruited to head up the WPU, she had been out of the House of Representatives for nearly a decade. A busy lobbyist, she advocated for progressive issues like federal funding for prenatal care and anti-child labor laws. She was apparently thrilled to join the WPU—so thrilled that she didn’t set specific terms for her employment there.

Rankin immediately set out to garner support for the war-banning amendment.