Right Or Wrong, Rankin Was The Real Thing

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Jeannette Rankin
Jeannette Rankin

“If I had my life to live over, I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier.”

We’re told that voters are looking for authenticity, someone who is unfiltered, untamed, unreconstructed, who’ll tell their truth, without coaching and without regard to the cost.

2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of the election of the first woman to the U.S. Congress. Most readers have never heard of Jeannette Rankin, who wrote the quotation above late in her long life.

For a long time, she was erased from our national historical narrative. She was elected to two terms—24 years apart—and both times did something extraordinary, something utterly unfamiliar to us: She literally stood up for peace, on the floor of Congress, at the most uncomfortable, irritating moment. She did it as Congress was voting for war.

Miss Jeannette, daughter of a prominent Helena banker, led the successful fight for women’s suffrage in Montana in 1914. Her candidacy for one of the state’s two seats in Congress was rejected by Republican leaders, but she used her many connections in the suffrage and prohibition movements, and the backing of the Montana Good Government League, to build her own operation and win the 1916 primary. Elected in a close race in November, she was instantly a Congressional star.

Delegates to the April 1915 Women's International Congress for Peace and Freedom aboard the MS Noordam with their blue and white "PEACE" banner. Rankin was a prominent member of the organization
Delegates to the April 1915 Women’s International Congress for Peace and Freedom aboard the MS Noordam with their blue and white “PEACE” banner. Rankin was a prominent member of the organization.

She took office on April 2, 1917. Representatives stood and the galleries cheered as Rankin entered the chamber.

Later that day, Congress received a special message from President Wilson, re-elected only five months earlier, partly on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” He asked Congress to declare war on Germany and its allies. There were several days of intense debate and then the roll call. After passing twice, as if unsure, Miss Rankin broke the rules by speaking as she voted: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” She was one of 50 Representatives and six Senators, including giants like LaFollette, Bankhead and Gore, to vote against entering the European conflagration.

The Montana legislature had already changed the district boundaries for 1918 so that her home was in a strong Democratic district. In September 1917, with women still sending pictures of babies named Jeannette in her honor, Rankin announced she would run for the U.S. Senate.

She’d made powerful enemies in Montana, especially among mine owners who resented her meddling and complaining about unsafe conditions. With Americans now in the trenches, her vote against the war became poisonous. To some it proved that women were too sentimental to think straight about policy. To others, she was a traitor or a dupe. She lost the 1918 primary.

Rankin ran for Congress in 1940 as an anti-war candidate, reflecting the thinking of many Republicans, especially in the Midwest and West. She defeated an anti-Semitic, Nazi-admiring incumbent in the primary and was elected to her second term.

On Dec. 8, 1941, The Day After infamy, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a Declaration of war against Japan. Republican friends rushed over to Miss Rankin, urging her to vote “not present,” essentially abstaining, so that the vote could remain unanimous and she could salvage something of her career. Speaker Rayburn pretended not to see her standing and waving for attention.

“As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said, and then she cast the only vote in Congress against war with Japan. The galleries booed and hissed. They needed the Capital police to get her out of the building.

Rankin believed that FDR’s policies had helped instigate the war with Japan (she later voted “not present” regarding war with Germany and Italy, which had already declared against the U.S.).

She understood the price and did not run for re-election.

She lived long enough to protest the war in Vietnam. She was the real deal.

Michael MillerMichael Miller (mmillercolumn@gmail.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.

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