Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

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

Jeannette Rankin
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.”

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (26)

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.

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.

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.

Aren't there women in the

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

Most women

call it pro-choice, Mr. Swift.

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.

wow!

Such generalizations….

Nazi Germany would have

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?

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.

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...

An interesting person

But did she change the world in any memorable way?

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.

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.

You mean Edwin Starr

Yes

Clapton did write an antiwar song, though:

""When This War Is Over"

When this war is over it will be a better day
When this war is over it will be a better day
But it won't bring back those poor boys in the grave"

Women leaders in the 1960s anti-war movement

From what I've read, women had plenty of sexism to deal with within that movement — and within the culture at that time — especially in that they were much less likely than men to be taken seriously.

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.

Harry Turtledove

has also written a number of WWII alternative histories.

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.

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!"

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,_...

How Rankin changed America

Paul asked whether Jeannette Rankin made a difference. Absolutely! Rankin was/is a pivotal figure in advancing voting rights for women.

Imagine living in a country where it is illegal for you to vote, based solely on your anatomy. You have no power to choose leaders who support your opinions, preferences, priorities and passions, such as those expressed daily on MinnPost. The government to which you are accountable is not accountable to you. No "I voted" sticker for you in 2016.

When my grandmother reached the age of majority, she was not permitted to vote. That changed in her lifetime. When Jeannette Rankin ran for Congress in 1916, a handful of states, including Montana where my grandmother lived, had granted women the right to vote. My grandmother could evaluate, choose, and cast her vote for the candidate she felt would best represent her interests and the interests of other citizens of Montana. She worked on Rankin's campaign, and on the passage of the 19th Amendment.

There's no question that Rankin made a crucial difference in the lives of more than half of the American population.

You've made the point

that Rankin was part of an important movement (and my grandmother talked about the same experience as yours).
But you haven't supported Rankin's role in that movement.
What did she DO that made social change more likely?

Being first matters!

"What did she DO that made social change more likely?"

Being first matters!

Rep. Jeannette Rankin
Sen. Hattie Wyatt Caraway
Sandra Day O'Connor
Sonya Sotomayor
Sally Ride
Amelia Earhart
Mary Barr
Beryl Markham
Madeleine Albright
Elizabeth Dole
Condoleeza Rice
Harriet Tubman
Billie Jean King
Mia Hamm
Danica Patrick
Nancy Pelosi
John Glenn
Neil Armstrong
Harvey Milk
Barney Frank
Jessie Owens

These people were all the first to accomplish something, inspiring the world, nations, and societies to evolve. They lift up the dreams and aspirations of the young. They drive social change.

"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.

Policy

What happened to this site's policy on ad hominem statements?