Ruth Ann Dailey: Rep. Rankin obeyed only her conscience
April 3, 2017 12:00 AM
A portrait of Jeannette Rankin by Sharon Sprung, part of the collection at the House of Representatives.
By Ruth Ann Dailey
It was 100 years ago yesterday — April 2, 1917 — that the first woman ever elected to national office took her seat in Congress. Just a few days later she joined 50-plus of her new colleagues, a distinct minority, to vote against declaring war on Germany.
Her name was Jeannette Rankin. She was a pacifist, a suffragist and a Republican, elected by the citizens of Montana even before the 19th amendment guaranteed all women the right to vote. Those facts alone tell you how much has changed from her day to ours.
Our era’s greater ideological rigidity aside, though, the rough-and-tumble that Ms. Rankin endured at the intersection of politics and journalism offers some reassurance for today’s dispirited citizens. Angry conflict was not unknown back then, either, and the first female in Congress managed to be a lightning rod in at two historic moments.
Ms. Rankin actually served two terms in Congress, almost 25 years apart, each on the eve of a world war. Her story, dimly remembered from history classes long ago, was brought back to mind by articles commemorating her historic “first.”
But these stories about the past sometimes conflict, provoking reflections on conflicts of the present.
One website claimed Ms. Rankin’s swearing-in was delayed for a month while the men argued over whether a woman should be admitted to Congress. The House’s official history site gives a different account, though:
“Congress was called into an extraordinary April session after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping,” so Ms. Rankin “arrived at the Capitol to be sworn in along with the other Members of the 65th Congress.”
This was 16 years before the 20th Amendment set the beginning of executive and legislative terms in January, and President Woodrow Wilson, just beginning his second term, wished to ask the new Congress for a declaration of war.
The story of Ms. Rankin’s big entrance continues as www.history.house.gov quotes an observer: “When her name was called the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice.”
It’s hard to square these facts with a modern claim that male colleagues delayed her entry with sexist quibbles. But we do this all the time — reinterpreting history and distorting the truth to fit the rigid narratives of modern American politics — sometimes, it would seem, to enjoy our own supposed moral superiority.
Although 49 representatives and six senators (all men) also voted against entering World War I, Ms. Rankin was singled out for criticism, according to biographer Mary Barmeyer O’Brien.
The New York Times attributed her vote to “the inherent abhorrence of women for war,” even though Ms. Rankin had campaigned openly as a pacifist and Montana was an isolationist state.
She went on to introduce legislation for universal women’s suffrage and other causes, but she lost her seat after a single term, when Montana changed its two “at-large” representatives to a district system, placing her in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.
After many years in Georgia championing pacifism and various social welfare causes, Ms. Rankin returned to Montana as a new war began spreading across Europe. In 1940, she once again ran for Congress as a Republican pacifist and once again her fellow Montanans elected her.
Pearl Harbor changed everything, or almost. It did not change Jeannette Rankin.
On Dec. 8, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan, she cast the only “no” vote. Friendly colleagues had begged her to change her mind, or to vote “present,” but she refused, waiting patiently for the roll call to reach her.
Congressmen and guests booed and hissed at her. Mobbed by reporters upon exiting, she hid in the cloakroom phone booth and called Capitol Police to escort her back to her office.
Her brother Wellington Rankin, a prominent politician himself, wired her: “Montana is 100 percent against you.”
“She stuck to her guns” — that’s the delightful turn of phrase House historian Matt Wasniewski once used to describe this fearless, principled pacifist.
I profoundly disagree with her position — has there ever been a war more necessary and justified than World War II? — but what courage! She was steadfast and calm. Obeying her conscience ended her political career.
As hard as it is to imagine any nearly unanimous congressional vote today, it’s even harder to contemplate taking a lonely stand and bearing up under the Twitter-storms and Facebook frenzies regularly provoked over mere nothings.
Human nature hasn’t changed. Strong character is rare, and the opposition has platforms and loudspeakers unimagined a century ago. But fighting a good fight — even if that means refusing to fight — is still beautiful to behold.
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