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Peace activist Jeannette Rankin would be 141 today

She was first elected to a U.S. House seat from Montana in 1916, just in time to vote against U.S. entry into World War I.

Jeannette Rankin
Jeannette Rankin, shown in a 1939 photo, believed that if women had more political power, there would be fewer wars.
United States Library of Congress

Today is Jeannette Rankin’s birthday. If she were alive, she’d be 141, and she’d be for peace.

I don’t assume everyone recognizes Rankin’s name, although I’ve been on a long, slow, easily ignored multiyear crusade to make her amazing story more famous.

Rankin, a pacifist, was the first woman ever elected to Congress. She served two terms, more than two decades apart. She was first elected to a House seat from Montana in 1916, just in time to vote against U.S. entry into World War I. She also introduced a proposed constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.

Her anti-war position was unpopular and she lost her bid for a second term, at least in 1918.

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But, unbelievably, she made a comeback and won a second term in 1940, which enabled her to also oppose U.S. entry into World War II.

Considering that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor, the House vote was 388-1 in favor of declaring war. (Guess who was the one.) This time, Rankin’s “no” vote was so well received that she had to take refuge from an angry mob in a Capitol Building phone booth until the police could rescue her. She was not reelected in 1942.

Asked later whether she regretted that vote, she replied: “Never. If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.”

Rankin remained a peace activist into her 90s and into the 1970s, which meant, of course, that she was around to also oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and to inspire a group of anti-war feminists to create an umbrella peace organization called the Jeannette Rankin Brigade in her honor.

She was thinking about a third campaign for Congress, as a peace candidate of course, in 1972, but fell ill with cancer, which took her life in 1973, when she was 92.