United Press International (PHOTO)
The Jeannette Rankin Brigade, the first large group of women to protest the Vietnam War, marched from Union Station to the U.S. Capitol on January 15, 1968, the opening day of the ninetieth Congress. Rankin is in the center, wearing glasses. Today the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula works to continue Rankin's efforts toward peace.
The Legacy of Jeannette Rankin
by Megan McNamer
In a burst of Western chivalry, members of the Montana Legislature presented Jeannette Rankin with a small bouquet of violets on February 1, 1910, after she addressed the state House of Representatives on the subject of women's suffrage.
Jeannette Rankin 1917
"This condescending gesture was not lost on Jeannette," wrote Hannah Josephson, in her 1974 biography, Jeannette Rankin: First Lady in Congress. "She wanted votes, not violets."
The flowers might have been more welcome if the Montana legislators had been ready to decide that women should have equal power with men at the ballot box. As it was, suffrage amendments, introduced in the Montana Legislature since 1902, were "regarded as something of a farce," according to Josephson, "comic relief for the tedium of the serious business...calling for sparkling displays of wit."
Rankin's efforts saw fruition when women received the right to vote in Montana in 1914. Soon after, she cast her own first vote for herself in a successful bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916. She was the first woman elected to Congress at a time when not all states allowed women to vote.
Her decision to run had been seen by many of her supporters as audacious at this early point in women's emancipation. Suffragists wanted a woman in office, certainly, but they had aimed for something less lofty. Political organizers in the Republican party, Rankin's ticket, had begged her brother Wellington, a prominent lawyer in Missoula, to stop her from embarrassing herself.
The Making of a Pacifist
Rankin was born on a ranch at Grant Creek in 1880, when Montana still was a territory and wide open with possibility for people like her parents, John Rankin and Olive Pickering, who came to this frontier from Canada and New England. They passed this sense of promise on to their children.
But the big skies were not always matched by big minds. After Rankin's "no" vote to the war resolution on April 6, 1917, the Helena Independent Record vilified her as "a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl."
Rankin was one of fifty members of Congress opposing the war resolution; her mail from
Montana against U.S. involvement ran sixteen to one. But as the first and only woman in Congress, she paid extra for her pacifism. Her opponents said she wasn't up to the demands of public office. Her suffragette supporters felt she had betrayed them by appearing weak.
Jeannette Rankin in Washington D.C., with Mr. Pickering of Massachusetts, superintendant of capitol grounds and buildings.
Rankin's abiding belief, though, was that war was a futile means to resolve disputes among nations. While early feminists felt that gaining votes for women would almost automatically ensure peaceful solutions to conflicts between governments, Rankin distinguished between longing for peace and resolutely opposing war.
"The truth is that she was aggressive and pertinacious as a pacifist, a person to be reckoned with," Josephson wrote. "[T]o her mind people everywhere were overwhelmingly against war . . . [but] they were led into battle primarily because the political system did not allow them to express their views directly and secondarily because governments misled them as to the issues involved. . . She wanted someone who would talk back to the government."
Concern about the poor and disenfranchised, who most often are the victims of war, became a central part of Rankin's campaign for peace. She had grown up with the story of Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce leader who tried to lead his people through the Bitterroot Valley to Canada three years before she was born. Despite his ultimate defeat, he provided an inspiring example of courageous resistance to systematic persecution. "Looking back on her long struggle for women's rights," Josephson wrote, "Jeannette would sometimes say she wished she had given her energies to the cause of the Indians."
Education reform was another of Rankin's concerns. The Rankin family spent every summer on its ranch at Grant Creek, and Jeannette dreaded the return to school each fall. She found learning by rote a tedious bore, preferring the hands-on approach that became popular years later. After four years at the newly opened University of Montana in Missoula, she wrote a dutiful senior essay on snails, a topic that somehow seems antithetical to the admonition in her journal to "Go, go, go!" After Rankin graduated from UM in 1902 with a degree in science, she taught briefly, but felt at odds with the rigid educational practices she was expected to follow.
A Politician Born
Rankin was meant for politics, for the world of organizing and action. Her college education, though rare for a woman in the early 1900s, was useful in that regard. She was better educated than most of the other freshmen during her first stint in Congress, a fact that surely helped her gain favor for her views.
Rankin was not re-elected to the House after her first term but twenty-two years later in 1936. During the interim, she traveled, lobbying for peace. Although she frequently visited Montana, staying at her brother Wellington's ranch, she spent most of her adult life replicating the independent summers of her youth in a cabin in Georgia with no electricity or running water.
On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the House held a roll call vote to declare war on Japan. This time, Senator Rankin's "no" vote stood alone and was greeted by a chorus of hisses and boos from the floor and gallery. After she voted, she retired to a phone booth and called the capitol police for an escort.
Although she held fast to her central belief that war would never settle disputes among nations, Rankin's peace activism was forced underground during World War II. On January 15, 1968, however, she was on the front lines of the peace movement, when at age 88 she led the Jeannette Rankin Peace Brigade to protest the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s she was giving interviews to Life and The New York Times and attending National Organization of Women conventions.
"Women must devote all their energies today in gaining enough poliical offices to influence the direction of government away from the military-industrial complex and toward solving the major social disgraces that exist in our country," she said when she became the first member of the Susan B. Anthony Hall of Fame in 1971. "We are here together to work for the elimination of war."
Rankin's message was not always easy for Montanans to hear. She warned that they were in a dangerous situation because of their country's military orientation. Pointing to the hundreds of missile silos that dotted the countryside, she said Montanans were a population considered "expendable" by the U.S. government, an eerie echo of the government's early attitude toward Indians.
Rankin, who died in 1973, never received the Nobel Peace Prize, and her historic "no" votes didn't achieve in her lifetime what she'd hoped for-the abolition of war as a means of settling international disputes. But she hammered on the subject of peace relentlessly. Like Chief Joseph's dogged and despairing pacifism, she kept the idea of peace alive, even if its realization is a long way off.
Megan McNamer has published essays in Child, Northern Lights, Sports Illustrated and Tropic.