politician, activist, pacifist
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress (three years before the 19th amendment was ratified). She served two nonconsecutive terms (1917-1919, 1940-1942) in the House of Representatives and spent the rest of her life continuing to work for the causes she believed in.
Rankin was born on 11 June 1880 in Missoula, Montana. Her father was a rancher and lumber merchant and her mother a schoolteacher. She was oldest of seven children with five sisters and one brother (with whom she was closehe later became her political adviser). She went to public schools and eventually attended and graduated from the University of Montana (1902) with a degree in biology.
Following college, she spent time as a local teacher and as an apprentice seamstress. Her father died in 1904 and she took over caring for her siblings. Four years later, she left her home state to study at the New York School of Philanthropy. After that she spent time as a social worker in Seattle, Washington. The job didn't seem to appeal to her and she returned to college, enrolling in the University of Washington. There she found a cause she strongly believed in and became involved in the suffrage movement. She spent five years working and campaigning for a woman's right to vote. Her activism took her from Washington to California to Ohio and her own state of Montana, which gained suffrage in 1914. She eventually became the legislative secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Finding social causes important to her and wanting to do more, she decided to become active in politics. She was ambitious and confident enough to run for US Congress as a representative from Montana and was elected in 1917. She was affiliated with the Republican party and ran on a platform of various social issues like (national) suffrage, child protection laws, and prohibition. Not only was she elected a Republican from a strongly Democratic state, she was the first woman to be elected to Congress (most women couldn't even vote at the time). Rankin surprised and impressed her colleagues as not some "simple" woman from a frontier state, but thoughtful, erudite, and intelligent.
"You can no more win a war than win an earthquake"
Within days of starting her career in Congress, Rankin became involved in what would be her best known quality: her sincere pacifism. President Woodrow Wilson had asked for Congress to vote a declaration of war against Germany (this being from a time when presidents bothered to declare war). A special session of Congress was held 6 April 1917 and the Senate passed the resolution.
When the vote came to the House, she was faced with a decision of how to proceed. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of NAWSA, wanted her to vote in favor, fearing a vote against the resolution would create opposition against the suffragists because they would be seen as "unpatriotic" (and as the lone woman in Congress, it was felt however she voted would be a reflection on American women). Her brother, in his capacity as adviser, felt she should vote for it, as well.
In her own words:
I knew that we were asked to vote for a commercial war, that none of the idealistic hopes would be carried out, and I was aware of the falseness of much of the propaganda. It was easy to stand against the pressure of the militarists, but very difficult to go against the friends and dear ones who felt that I was making a needless sacrifice by voting against the war, since my vote would not be a decisive one.... I said I would listen to those who wanted war and would not vote until the last opportunity and if I could see any reason for going to war I would change it. (www.theglassceiling.com)
And she listened. In the end she felt compelled to vote as her conscience dictated. After the second roll call, she cast her vote saying "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no." Even though she was only one of fifty-six total to vote against going to war, her being a woman brought a backlash. There were calls for her to resign and she had speaking engagements cancelled.
Even though she had voted against the war, she remained patriotic and supportive, promoting war bonds and voting for the draft. On the other hand (and much to her credit) she opposed and voted against the Espionage Act of 1917 which, among other things, allowed imprisonment for anyone speaking or writing against the war or protesting it in any way.
She continued working for her causes of women's and children's rights, including introducing legislation that would allow women to have citizenship independent from their husbands. She also supported sponsorship of prenatal and childcare education. It is unlikely she would have been reelected after the war decision (her views on labor unions, equal pay, and birth control didn't help), but she attempted to run for the Senate following her term. Failing to get the Republican nomination, she ran as an independent and lost.
Despite the loss, she remained active in the causes she believed in, joining Jane Addams as a delegate to the Second International Congress of Women. She also campaigned for such things as the Maternity and Infancy Protection Act and the Child Labor Amendment. She was part of the Women's International League for Freedom and Peace, the Women's Peace Union, and the National Council for the Prevention of War. She also moved to Athens, Georgia and founded the Georgia Peace Society.
In 1940, she ran and was reelected as a representative. This time she ran on an antiwar platform. Once again, following the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she was faced with the necessity of having to vote on declaring war against another country. There was a radio broadcast going on at the time (in violation of the current media restraints). Before congressional aides stopped it and had the radio people removed, they managed to catch many of the statements and speeches of the isolationists, nationalists, and others who had suddenly become "patriotic" and galvanized against what was called an "unprovoked and dastardly attack" by a country of "war-mad Japanese devils." Congress said it would "hope there will not be a single dissenting force."
During the forty minute "debate," Rankin tried to make herself heard, raising her hand. She rose to object, only to be gavelled down so that others could speak in this "marketplace of ideas." On the tape of the broadcast, you can just hear her attempts to speak. In the words of the radio commentator, who called it a "very, very impressive and dramatic occasion":
Miss Jeannette Rankin tried to the bitter end to get recognition from the floor. She even made a point of order, trying to get recognition from the floor.
She didn't get it. The woman in the purple dress (the commentator made note of it) was denied until role call, when for the second time, she voted her conscience:
As a woman, I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.
Later (before the vote tally was known), the commentator guessed she might vote against it but wasn't sureeven considering that she might make a "speech in favor." Of course she didn't. As Walter Cronkite (who had heard the broadcast as a young newsman) said in a National Public Radio piece on the subject for the sixtieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rankin "cast a lone but unmitigated no." A "no" that was reportedly accompanied by boos from the other congressmen.
She was the only one voting against in both houses of Congress. It caused worse backlash than before. Supposedly, following the vote, she was chased by angry crowds and had to seek refuge in a telephone booth before being escorted home by police. The vote so incensed the Montana GOP National Committee that it demanded she change her vote in order to "save Montana's honor." Needless to say, it ended her career. When the vote to declare war against Germany came up, she simply voted "present."
A life of activism
No longer a member of the political machine she returned to doing what she cared about. Finding a comrade of sorts in the great Indian humanitarian and pacifist, Mohandas Gandhi ("Mahatma" was a title bestowed on him by his followers, meaning "great soul"), she traveled to India seven times between 1946 and 1971. She continued making speeches and giving talks about women's rights and peace, actively working in several organizations and testifying at political hearings.
In the sixties, she returned to prominence as vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam. She organized and urged women and others to protest. In 1968, she helped lead a group of some five thousand women in a demonstration at Capitol Hillthey called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. The fact that she was 88 years old at the time shows how strong her conviction and passion for peace was. In 1971, she even sent a letter to President Richard M. Nixon urging him to end the war.
Tireless, she even considered running for Congress again in 1973 (as she said, "just to have someone to vote for"). Had her health not deteriorated, leading to her death that year, she very well would have. She died on 18 May in Carmel, California. She was cremated and her ashes scattered over the sea.
There are numerous groups, scholarships and foundations that use her as a role model or name themselves after her in honor of her achievements as a woman and a defender of rights, as well as her lifelong stance on promoting peace. In 1985, a bronze statue of her was placed in the US Capitol.
In 1986, a group of activists and peace-minded people from Rankin's native Missoula, got together to form the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center. It was envisioned as a "central clearinghouse for peace information, and a meeting house to gather human spirit for peacemaking." It was also a way to "move peacemaking from the fringes of the community directly into its heart." Beginning in a church basement, the organization moved to a rented storefront and then its own home.
The peace center sees itself as a way to keep alive the values and ideals of its namesake and has made its current focus "public awareness and education." The questions it wishes asked and discussed (hoping one day to have a workable answer and solution) are "How can we create human institutions which facilitate peace, justice, and sustainability? How would culture need to evolve to support these values every day of our lives?"
Lofty and admirable goalsthough, perhaps, (sadly) out of reach. The center hopes to make itself an "environment where people can bring together and focus their energies on practical and inspiring action." While the center will never bring "peace in our time" (just as she knew her vote against war would not prevent its happening), it is a place where people working for change can gather and learn and hope to make their small part of the world a little more like the on envisioned by Rankin. As they say: "Making peace possible is the work of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center."
The center hosts lectures, discussions, programs, and other events. It makes available information and a has an extensive library.
(Sources: www.theglassceiling.com/biographies/bio27.htm, www.senate.gov/member/mt/baucus/general/bios/JeannetteRankin.htm, www.salsa.net/peace/faces/rankin.html, www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USArankin.htm, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=R000055, all quotes concerning the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center come from its site at www.jrpc.org, some information on the "Pearl Harbor" vote and the quotes from it came from NPR's "All Things Considered" airing 7 December 2001)