Jeannette Rankin, First Woman in the United States Congress
Jeannette Rankin (June 11, 1880 – May 18, 1973) is often remembered primarily for being the first woman elected into the U.S. Congress. However, her work in public service and social activism far transcended her two terms in the House of Representatives, beginning with a career in social work in an earthquake-torn San Francisco of the early 20th century, and coming to a close with the organizing of a mass 1968 anti-war protest in Washington D.C. at the age of eighty-seven. The events of her life stand as an inspiration for all those devoted to the fulfilment of justice and peace in the public sphere.
Born to a large family in Missoula, Montana in 1880, Rankin quickly became familiar with both the plight of woman, who were expected to work just as hard as men in the private sphere but to remain silent in the public one, and industrial workers, who were subject to intolerable working conditions and granted pittances for their labor. Fittingly then, throughout her twenties, Rankin began forming connections to the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement in America, and took up a position as a social worker for the economically underprivileged, both in California and Washington. Working closely with the poor, Rankin developed a critique of the American state’s willingness to leave these people behind, of the government’s failure to create a social safety net for its population.
The onset of World War I in Europe would add new dimensions to Rankin’s political consciousness. Becoming a founder of the Women’s Peace Party in 1914, she began to consider pacifism as essential to the success of both the women's and labor's movements. The connections that she made with Montana residents throughout this period of organization building would enable Rankin to launch a viable campaign for a Congress seat in the election season of 1916.
Running as a Republican (before the ideologies of the Democratic and Republican parties had switched to their current configurations), her campaign slogan read: “national woman suffrage, protection of childhood, state and national prohibition.” The inclusion of children’s rights in this list of goals, reveals the maternalistic characteristics of the First Wave feminism that Rankin subscribed to. Rankin believed that women had some inherent maternal instinct that was easily translatable into qualities such as non-violence, morality and intuition, and which American politics was desperately in need of.
As Montana women had been granted the right to vote two years earlier, in 1914, they became integral to the success of Rankin’s Congressional campaign. This was apparent in the magnitude of correspondence that Rankin received from female citizens in the aftermath of the vote, celebrating her victory and, oftentimes, confiding in her. Feeling hopeful that a woman in office would finally allow their unique plights to be addressed, these women wrote to Rankin about domestic abuse, lack of economic autonomy, child mortality, and so on.
Once in office, Rankin’s pacifist politics would be put to the test almost immediately. As fate would have it, President Woodrow Wilson would call for the United States’ entry into WWI on the very day that Rankin took her Congressional seat. Stating that “I want to stand by my country… but I cannot vote for war,” Rankin joined forty-nine other members of Congress in rejecting the proposal. She felt strongly that this kind of economic commitment would further hinder the state’s ability to protect those American citizens already living in dire precarity. When it became clear though that she was part of the minority, and that war was imminent, she did what she could to lessen the harmful impacts of the violence. She worked to support the endeavors of the American Red Cross, and fought for the improvement of conditions within the military camps. Despite making these important efforts to aid soldiers, many of Rankin’s colleagues had already stereotyped her as weak or ineffective. Her position against war was taken by many male politicians as proof that women were not able to take necessary action to protect the country or its allies.
Rankin’s vote against WWI was only the first deed in a string of many that would be considered scandalous by these more conservative Congress members. Rankin’s devotion to suffrage drove her committed involvement in the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. This Amendment would eventually evolve into the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants American women the right to vote. And, after the tragic death of 168 miners in Butte, Montana, Rankin stunned the floor of the House when she criticized the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, and called on the U.S. government to nationalize metal mines. As a pacifist, suffragist, and an enemy of abusive capitalists, a major target was placed on her back, and Rankin failed to secure another term in the following election cycle.
Rankin was unable to make her way back into office until 1939, when again the threat of America’s entrance into a world war loomed large. This time though, the uniqueness of Rankin’s political agenda within the context of Congress, became glaringly apparent. When the vote to join the Allies in their European war effort came to the House floor, Rankin was the only member to vote against.
The isolation she felt in formal American politics might help to explain why she devoted herself fully to activist politics after her second term in Congress came to an end. She developed working relationships with other feminists and labor activists like Margaret Sanger and Mary Van Kleeck, and, importantly, came to see supporting the growing Civil Rights and Black Power movements as part and parcel of her anti-war, and feminist politics. Simultaneously, Rankin was developing a more fervent critique of American foreign policy, studying the ways in which America had historically taken on an imperialistic role in its relationships with Africa and South America, and becoming an advocate for liberation movements in these regions.
With this political platform, Rankin (already in her eighties) helped to found the Jeannette Rankin Brigade in 1967. The Brigade was a feminist organization that hoped to build a Popular Front, or coalition, of women’s peace groups. For these women, the kind of positive peace they were advocating for, meant far more than states avoiding war. Positive peace meant quelling U.S. aggressive intervention abroad while working actively to better the conditions of life domestically. It meant redirecting funds directed toward bloodshed to guaranteeing economic support, racial justice, and gender equality at home. The women within the Brigade came from a wide spectrum of ideological backgrounds, but crucially, the organization offered a space for previous Communist Party members who had been pushed out of the realm of organizing by Mccarthy-era hostility.
For their entry into the political scene, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade organized a march on Washington D.C. in protest of the Vietnam War for January, 1968. Over 5,000 women from around the country, dressed in black (to signify the amount of life lost in the war), touted a banner reading “End the War in Vietnam and the Social Crisis at Home.” With this, they clearly articulated the intricate links between aggressive foreign policy and domestic inequality, racism, political censorship, and so on.
By ceaselessly fighting against forms of abuse, occurring both domestically and internationally, Jeannette Rankin proved herself to be a lifelong servant of the public interest. Although she was not always successful, her path opened up new political possibilities, and allowed the boundaries of the status quo to be broadened in the name of equality.
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Bennett, Scott H., and Charles F. Howlett. Antiwar Dissent and Peace Activism in World War I America : a Documentary Reader Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
Link: Swarthmore College