Happy Birthday Jeannette Rankin. Why aren’t you more famous?

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

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, which is Exhibit A for why she should be more famous than she is. I wrote about her a couple of years ago, but I’m doing so again because of Exhibit A and Exhibit B (her political career was wonderfully strange) and Exhibit C (it’s her birthday). If she was still alive, Rankin would be 135 years old today.

Rankin was a lifelong pacifist and suffragist. She said the two were related because she believed that if women had more political power, there would be fewer wars.

Here’s my explanation for Exhibit B, the wonderful strangeness of her public career:

Rankin was born and grew up in Montana and was elected as a Republican to the state’s at-large seat in the U.S. House on her first try in 1916. (The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, hadn’t been ratified yet, but women could vote in Montana.) The day she was sworn in as the first woman elected to Congress was the day President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. It passed 373-50. Rankin was one of the 50, and her vote wasn’t received well back home. A Helena newspaper called her “a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army… and a crying schoolgirl.” Her vote cost her another term, but she expressed no regret.

She spent the next two decades lecturing on pacifism, advocating for children’s welfare, for consumer protection, for a ban on child labor and for the the first federal social-welfare program created explicitly for women and children. Amazingly, at age 60, she staged a political comeback and was elected in 1940 to a second term in the U.S. House. During her first year she had to vote on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan.

Personally, I’m a peacenik but not a pacifist. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I would’ve voted aye on that one. But Rankin believed war is never the best alternative and she voted nay, this time the only one in the House to do so on a 388-1 vote. According to the Wikipedia article on her life:

“After the vote an angry mob followed her as she left the Capitol building, and she was forced to take refuge in a telephone booth until U.S. Capitol Police could rescue her. Two days later a similar war declaration against Germany and Italy came to vote; Rankin abstained. Her political career effectively over, she retired in 1942 rather than face a near-certain re-election defeat.”

Rankin went on cheerfully advocating for pacifism. In 1968, a coalition of women’s peace groups calling themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. Rankin herself (she was 87 and still in fine fettle as you can see in the short video clip embedded here) led them by foot from Union Station to the steps of the Capitol.

Rankin died in 1973, shortly before her 93rd birthday. Her New York Times obit said that until her final illness,  “her only concession to age was a cane and a slight weariness at seeing the ideas she had advocated for seven decades treated as if they were still radically new.”

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/11/2015 - 11:03 am.

    In 1985…

    Montana dedicated its second and last statue in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol: Jeanette Rankin. “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” We desperately need more courageous politicians in her mold.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/11/2015 - 11:13 am.

    Indeed

    It’s more than just “too bad” more women have not followed in Ms. Rankin’s footsteps, though Elizabeth Warren is making something of an attempt in the Senate.

    For what it’s worth, I think Rankin was/is spot-on in suggesting there would be fewer wars if there were more women in charge, even in a new and potentially much more deadly 21st century. I’ve known and worked with plenty of women quite strong enough to run the country, and they tend toward Eric’s (and mine) position of being “peaceniks” rather than pacifists. My observation over several decades is that women are, as a group, and with the usual caveat exceptions, *much* better negotiators than their male counterparts, and I include myself. The ones I watched at work were much more focused on outcomes and much less focused on their own egos than the men they were typically negotiating with.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/11/2015 - 02:34 pm.

    I think when your a woman it is a lot easier

    to understand that war kills your children and other women’s children.

    Which of course leads to no good outcome so it is best just not to go there.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/12/2015 - 06:38 am.

      Aren’t there women in the vanguard of the pro-abortion militia?

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/12/2015 - 08:04 am.

        Most women

        call it pro-choice, Mr. Swift.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/13/2015 - 11:03 am.

          Because

          few pro choice people advocated abortion as the birth control method of choice.
          In fact, it is the ideologues who make it difficult to teach young women the facts of birth control who contribute to the demand for abortions.
          The best way to eliminate abortion is to eliminate unwanted pregnancies.
          And ‘Vatican Roulette’ does not work.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/11/2015 - 02:46 pm.

    wow!

    Such generalizations….

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/11/2015 - 02:49 pm.

    Nazi Germany would have almost certainly won WWII if the US had sat it out. I wonder if Ms. Rankin ever pondered what that would have been like?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/11/2015 - 09:30 pm.

      Pacifism

      Rankin was a true believer.
      Like Eric Black, I do not share her belief in pacifism, but given that belief, I suspect that she felt that some alternative to war could have been worked out.
      It must be noted that WWII had its roots in the Treaty of Versailles, something that I’m sure Rankin opposed.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/12/2015 - 10:58 am.

      here you go thomas

      Chall: How did you feel that we could have stopped Hitler?

      Rankin: By not encouraging him, and encouraging the people of previous hit Germany next hit to have their own government. England and the United States just pushed Hitler.

      Chall: Until it was too late. Until he was ready to turn on England and the United States.

      Rankin: No, until the military told them to, and they’re both controlled by the military…The military have to keep their jobs. They can’t keep them unless they have a war.

      http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt758005dx;NAAN=13030&chunk.id=d0e4365&brand=calisphere&query=germany&set.anchor=3

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/11/2015 - 07:02 pm.

    An interesting person

    But did she change the world in any memorable way?

  7. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 06/11/2015 - 09:21 pm.

    Something that men do

    Rankin’s belief that more women in politics would mean fewer wars is dead on. I’ll never forget the time when our five-year-old daughter asked my wife, “What’s war?” “It’s something that men do,” my wife replied. Indeed. War, along with virtually all criminal pathologies, are overwhelming the dominion of men. Human violence, whatever its shape, is almost always male violence. Not much we can do about that, except that I wonder if Congress had actually had 50% representation by women (not to mention a 50-50 chance of the US having a woman president), if maybe we wouldn’t have gone so eagerly into Iraq 12 years ago.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/12/2015 - 08:40 am.

      Echoing Eric Clapton

      (War, what is it good for…)
      Who was male the last I checked.
      As were Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, etc.
      Most of the leading figures of the ’60’s anti war movement were male.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/11/2015 - 09:40 pm.

    Pondering

    I’ve not made a career of studying this, so I claim only minimal expertise, but it seems to me likely that World War II and Nazi Germany would probably not have occurred at all if Ms. Rankin’s vote against American involvement in World War I had been part of a majority, or better yet, if World War I itself had not occurred at all. It was promoted as the last great war, and that it would “make the world safe for democracy.” Neither of those things turned out to be true.

    As for Mr. Swift’s rhetorical question, I don’t know if Ms. Rankin ever considered the consequences of Nazi Germany winning World War II, but others have. I recommend Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” a science fiction novel based on the notion that the Axis powers won World War II.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/12/2015 - 12:51 pm.

      Harry Turtledove

      has also written a number of WWII alternative histories.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/13/2015 - 06:24 pm.

      I recently reread The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

      The punitive Versailles Treaty not surprisingly left a lot of Germans with a strong sense of resentment and wounded national pride, on top of the damage caused by the war itself and the economic damage caused by the requirement to pay reparations.

      The dismantling of the imperial government led to political instability in which both right-wing and left-wing extremists vied for power. Germany might have gone either way, except that Hitler received the backing of a number of powerful industrialists and financiers with his promise to suppress unions and left-wing parties. He never won a majority of the popular vote, but what support he had came from taking advantage of two widespread popular lies: that Germany’s leaders had betrayed the people at the end of World War I and that the “international Jewish financiers” had profiteered off Germany’s economic woes.

      Once Hitler was in power, the rest of the world was extraordinarily timid in responding to his ventures, to the extent that he himself was surprised. The internal opposition, which could have gotten rid of him any number of times, was faint hearted and inept at just the wrong times.

      In fact, the greatest takeaway from the book was how much the course of history depended on individuals making inexplicably good or bad decisions at crucial times.

  9. Submitted by Shannon Drury on 06/12/2015 - 08:12 am.

    The next generation…

    My daughter performed as Jeannette Rankin when the fourth graders at her school did a biography project in which they researched and embodied a person from history. She wore an elegant flowered hat and a “votes for women” sash decorated with peace pins from Northern Sun. The reaction from parents at the event was as you might have predicted: “I never heard of her before–she sounds incredible!”

  10. Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/12/2015 - 11:09 am.

    Rankin’s 1918 campaign

    One of the reasons Rankin did not run for her House seat in 1918 was that the Montana state legislature had redistricted her into a highly Democratic district. She ran as a Republican for the US Senate that year but lost by less than 2,000 votes statewide. She ran as a third-party candidate in the general election but finished third.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Senate_election_in_Montana,_1918

  11. Submitted by kelly barnhill on 06/13/2015 - 05:07 pm.

    “What did she DO”?You mean,

    “What did she DO”?

    You mean, *besides* be the the very first woman elected to Congress – at a time when most women weren’t allowed to vote? Good lord. You need something more? When was the last time you were elected to Congress? Some people lead by example. Perhaps this is something you need to learn, and then you won’t ask so many insufferable questions.

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