Today is the birthday of Jeanette Rankin. A life-long pacifist and Suffragette, she was the first female member of the United States Congress and the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1916. She was also a Republican (they were different in those days).
Born in 1880, near Missoula, Montana, Rankin graduated from the University of Montana in 1902 and studied at the School of Philanthropy in New York City. She began social work in Seattle, Washington, in 1909 and in subsequent years worked for woman suffrage in Washington, California, and Montana.
One month into her term in the House of Representatives, Congress voted on the resolution to enter World War I. Rankin voted against the resolution and suffered a backlash from not only the press but suffragette groups, who canceled many of her speaking engagements. Despite her anti-war vote, she supported the military draft and participated in Liberty Bond drives.
In 1918, she introduced legislation to provide state and federal funds for health clinics, midwife education, and visiting nurse programs in an effort to reduce the nation’s infant mortality.
Her term as Representative ended in 1919. For the next two decades, she worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. for various causes. She worked for legislation to promote maternal and child health as a field secretary for the National Consumers’ League, and campaigned for the Sheppard-Towner Act, the first federal social welfare program created explicitly for women and children. In 1920, she became founding vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In 1929, she wrote,
There can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.
She was re-elected to the House in 1940, running on an anti-war platform. She was sixty years old. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Rankin once again voted against going to war. It should be noted that there was huge opposition to entering World War II, even after Pearl Harbor, a fact that is usually left out of most accounts. Republican leaders in Montana pressured Rankin to change her vote, but she remained firm. By 1942, her antiwar stance had become so unpopular that she did not seek re-election.
Rankin’s interest in India dated back to 1917, when she read some books by Lajpat Rai, a pre-Gandhi Indian author and politician. By the time she left Congress for the second time, she had become extremely interested in Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. In 1946, she traveled to India where she was able to meet with Nehru, but missed an opportunity to see Gandhi, something she always regretted.
By her next visit to India, Gandhi had already been assassinated. She continued to visit the country many times, mainly to study Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience methods.
Gandhi was a religious man, he was. But he was what we would call a politician; he knew what you could do and what you couldn’t do with people. He was a psychologist. He was a politician because he knew what you could expect of the common people and what you couldn’t expect of them . . . Gandhi never used the phrase “non-violence” without the word “truth.” Truth and non-violence. He hunted for the truth and the other side gave in . . . Gandhi used spiritual power to solve modern political problems. Without violence, he obtained the independence of India.
In 1968, at the age of 88, she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a peace group numbering 5,000, to Washington to protest the Vietnam War and to present a peace petition to House Speaker John McCormack.
Apparently, when she died in Carmel, California, on May 18, 1973, Jeannette Rankin was contemplating yet another run for Congress.
Jeanette Rankin was a true maverick. Learn more about this remarkable woman at Women in Congress.house.gov
Or rent A Single Woman, the bio-pic on Jeannette Rankin, starring Jeanmarie Simpson, Judd Nelson, and Peter Coyote, along with the voices of Patricia Arquette, Karen Black, Margot Kidder, Elizabeth Peña, and Chandra Wilson.