Thursday, October 14

Something for the Rankin File

Time magazine mentions Jeanette Pickering Rankin as a top ten political prodigy. My public school education failed to fill me in on the amazing Ms. Rankin, who was the first woman elected to Congress. She was from Montana and a progressive Republican back when there was such a thing.

As a young woman, she was a teacher and later a social worker and became involved in the Women's' suffrage movement. In 1912 she became the field secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Rankin was among eight thousand suffragettes in a 1913 march in Washington, D.C., before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.

Rankin returned to Montana and helped to organize the successful Montana suffrage campaign in 1914 which allowed women the right to vote there. As war in Europe loomed, Rankin turned her attention to work for peace, and in 1916, ran for one of the two seats in Congress from Montana as a Republican and became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress (as well as the first woman elected to a national legislature in any western democracy).

Rankin used her fame and notoriety in this "famous first" position to work for peace and women's rights and against child labor, and to write a weekly newspaper column. In 1918 she led the debate that was integral to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives. Two years later, after three-fourths of the state legislatures ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, all American women were constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote.

Rankin made history in yet another way; she voted against U.S. entry into World War I and violated protocol by speaking during the roll call before casting her vote, announcing "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war." She was criticized for her vote by former allies in the suffrage movement as opening the cause to criticism as impractical and sentimental.

The Republican Party in Montana, unhappy with Rankin's antiwar stance, kept her from running for a second congressional term by gerrymandering her district. She ran for the Senate, but lost the primary and launched a third party bid, which lost overwhelmingly in the general election.

After moving to Georgia, she farmed and founded the Georgia Peace Society in 1928 which unsuccessfully lobbied the Georgia legislature to pass a state constitutional amendment banning war. In the first half of 1937, she spoke in 10 states, giving 93 speeches for peace. She supported the America First Committee, but decided that lobbying was not the most effective way to work for peace.

By 1939, she had returned to Montana and was running for Congress again, supporting a strong but neutral America in yet another time of impending war. Though elected by a small margin in 1940, Rankin arrived in Washington now as one of six women in the House and two in the Senate.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress voted to declare war against Japan. Rankin once again voted "no" to war, this time saying "As a woman I can't go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else" as she voted alone against the war resolution. She was widely denounced by the press and her colleagues. She left elected for good.

The next twenty years of her life were filled with trips all over the world, including India, where she studied Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent philosophy. She made Watkinsville, Georgia her home base, though she also spent much of her time at an apartment in Carmel, California.

In the 1960s Rankin established a self-sufficient women's co-operative on her Georgia farm. Rankin traveled around the country making speeches and lobbying politicians for peace, just as she had for women's suffrage more than fifty years earlier. In 1968, at age 87, she led a march on Washington; as thousands marched to the Capitol, they called themselves "The Jeannette Rankin Brigade." She continued giving speeches against the Vietnam War until late in 1972, when she became ill and physically unable to travel.

Upon Rankin's death at 92 in 1973, $16,000 in proceeds from her estate were earmarked to assist "mature, unemployed women workers." This seeded the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, which has been helping mature, low-income women succeed through education since it was chartered in 1976. Since 1978, over $1.3 million in scholarships have been awarded to over 600 women.


1 comment:

Friday said...

Great article! Glad you are sharing her story!

Thought you'd like to know, Jeannette Rankin is featured as Hero of the week over at you should check it out and share it with your friends!