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.”