Today marks the day the first woman elected to Congress and the first woman Cabinet secretary took office.
1917 -Jeannette Rankin Does Some House Work
On March 4, 1917 Republican Jeanette Rankin of Montana took her seat as the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was the first woman in the United States Congress, elected in Montana in 1916 and again in 1940. After being elected in 1916 she said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last.”
A lifelong pacifist, she was one of fifty members of Congress who voted against entry into World War I in 1917, and the only member of Congress who voted against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. During Rankin’s first term, Montana legislature restructured its voting districts and she found herself in an overwhelmingly Democratic one. She decided to run for the U.S. Senate and finished second in the Republican primary. She campaigned on a third-party ticket and finished a disappointing third.
In 1920, she was a founding Vice President of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rankin was elected to Congress again in 1940, defeating incumbent Republican representative Jacob Thorkelson, an outspoken anti-Semite. Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against entering WWII following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hisses could be heard from the gallery when Rankin cast the vote and several colleagues asked her to change it to make the war declaration unanimous, but she refused.”As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” After the vote an angry mob followed her, and she was forced to hide in a telephone booth and call congressional police to rescue her.
Rankin died of natural causes on May 18, 1973 in Carmel, California. She had been considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.
A statue of Rankin was placed in the United States Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 1985. At the dedication, historian Joan Hoff-Wilson called her “one of the most controversial and unique women in Montana and American political history. A replica stands in Montana’s capitol, and the words “I Cannot Vote For War” are carved into the bases of both.
1933 – The Woman Behind the New Deal Goes Into Labor . . . Becoming the First Female Cabinet Secretary
Frances Perkins was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first womanappointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet to remain in office for his entire presidency.
During her term as Secretary of Labor, Perkins championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With the Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard forty-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service, Perkins resisted having American women be drafted to serve the military in World War II so that they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers.
As Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. In this post, she was involved in all aspects of the reports including her hand in the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps which ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935. On the day that bill was signed into law, her husband escaped from a mental institution.
Following her tenure as Secretary of Labor, in 1945 Perkins was asked by President Harry Truman to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission, which she did until 1952, when her husband died and she resigned from federal service. During this period, she also published a memoir of her time in FDR’s administration called The Roosevelt I Knew, which offered a sympathetic view of the president.
Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85. She is buried in the Glidden Cemetery in Newcastle, Maine.
Perkins is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church on May 13. She was the winner of the “Golden Halo” in Lent Madness 2013, an educational tool hosted by Forward Movement Publications featuring the saints of the calendar of the Episcopal Church.