In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman ever elected to the United States Congress. She was young, with a head of red hair and a certain amount of grit that comes from being elected to office when a majority of women in the country did not even have the right to vote. Within a few short months, Representative Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was to take part in one of the most consequential votes of her term: deciding whether America should join the Great War.

World War I devastated the globe. The true death toll will most likely remain unknown, but the shattered lives, the complete political upheaval across three continents and the economic effects still echo with its consequences to this day. Rankin had read the reports about the young soldiers in the trenches, the recruitment of older and older men, the genocide taking place in Armenia, and the bloody shift in Russian politics.

While many others in Congress rattled their sabers despite the fact that almost none of them would fight, Rankin took a hard look at the reality of war. She found that if she did not want to fight and die on some foreign shore, then she could not ask that of her fellow Americans.

On April 5th, 1917, when Congress called for a vote on whether to declare war on Germany, Jeannette Rankin calmly took a stand and stated, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote ‘no.’ ”

Rankin was not the lone vote against America entering World War I. She was joined by 55 of her male colleagues across the House and Senate. However, as the first female member of Congress, her vote and actions were scrutinized to an alarming, brutal degree.

The New York Times was quick to lambaste Rankin and paint her as a frail woman, “overwrought, harassed by conflicting emotions, beset by doubts.” The Times neglected to paint the same picture of Rankin’s congressional colleague, Claude Kitchin, who openly wept as he explained his “no” vote. Suffragette leader Carrie Chapman Catt, who witnessed the historic vote, called out the Times for its inaccurate reporting on Rankin’s mental and emotional state. Further, she stated the truth that Jeannette Rankin, as the first female member of Congress, would have been criticized no matter how she voted.

In 2017, 100 years after Congress voted for war, two more Republican women joined in the long tradition that Jeannette Rankin began. The issue this time was the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans in Congress had been trying to repeal for seven years despite its benefits to their constituents and the country at large.

When Republicans took control of the legislative and executive branches after the 2016 election, millions of Americans feared their health insurance would be ripped away by a single vote in Congress.

However, much to the surprise of many, the Affordable Care Act did not get repealed. The proposed ACA replacement was dead before it hit the Senate floor, and the repeal option resulted in one of the narrowest votes in recent history.

Yet through all the chaos, the constituent calls and the political threats by their own party, two female Republican Senators broke with their party to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska decided to stand by their country and vote against stripping health care from millions of Americans.

Somewhere in the chambers of Congress, when Collins and Murkowski stood to vote, the ghost of the first woman ever elected to Congress joined them in simply saying “no.”

One hundred years ago, Representative Rankin set a precedent of standing by one’s principles even in the face of intimidation and virulent sexism. Today, Sens. Collins and Murkowski continued to uphold that precedent and join in the long, proud tradition of women in Congress taking a stand to say “no.”

filed under: