“I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”
— Jeannette Rankin, Representative from Montana, during 1917 vote
“If I had known you were going to vote against it, I might have had the courage.”
— James Mann, House Minority Leader, speaking to Jeannette Rankin after 1917 vote
I don’t have heroes anymore. Maybe my expectations were too high, and the resulting disillusionment was too much to take. Or maybe I chose people who weren’t all that heroic to begin with. Whatever the reason, I seem to have outgrown the concept.
Still, there are people I admire and respect, and who demonstrate a human trait that I wish I had – or who, through their example, help me see that I have the trait after all, and give me the courage to develop it.
Jeannette Rankin is one of those people. She was born in 1880, in Missoula, Montana. Had she lived long enough, today would have been her 133rd birthday. In 1998, I published a book called Extraordinary Women in Politics. Before I began writing the book, I compiled a list of subjects, which in the end numbered fifty-seven. Jeannette Rankin’s name was the first one I wrote down.
Here are the opening paragraphs from her chapter in that book:
The date was April 2, 1917. The first woman ever elected to the United States Congress had taken her seat. Such an event would have been dramatic on its own, but it was also the day President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. That declaration could come only from a vote by the Senate and the House of Representatives.
War had already been raging all over Europe for three years. Sophisticated weapons such as submarines, anti-aircraft guns, and chemical shells meant a level of destruction the human race had never seen. For the first time in history, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were being killed and wounded, by both sides, in single battles. The only major power missing from the action was the United States.
In winning election to Congress, Rankin entered what had always been a man’s arena: national politics. Now she was about to tell the nation, and the world, what she thought of another favorite male pastime: war.
Rankin graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor of science degree. She later worked as a schoolteacher and social worker, apparently funneled by tradition into the few careers open to women. But in 1912, Rankin changed direction and began campaigning for women’s suffrage, lobbying in fifteen different states. Her efforts helped women in Montana attain the right to vote in 1914. Two years later, she decided to run for Congress.
Campaigning as a Republican, Rankin argued for prohibition, laws protecting children, inclusion of all women in America’s election process, and military preparedness for national defense. She defeated six men running for the same seat, and the following April was sworn in as the first woman in Congress. On the fourth of that month, the Senate voted 82-to-6 in favor of the United States entering World War One. The vote in the House was scheduled for two days later.
President Wilson had pledged American neutrality years earlier. The decision to now join the Allies would mean the loss of thousands, maybe millions, of lives. For Rankin, the vote was even more complex. Her reluctance to go to war would be seen by men as a sign of weakness, and could hurt the chances for further gains by women in politics. Even the suffragettes, who had worked alongside Rankin, now urged her to support her congressional colleagues and the president. Meanwhile, the pacifists, who had also helped elect her, pleaded with Rankin to resist war.
The House began its alphabetical roll call at three o’clock in the morning. The gallery was filled to capacity, and with Wilson’s request for a declaration of war all but assured, the drama lay in how the “Lady from Montana” would vote. As Rankin rose, the chamber grew silent.
“I want to stand by my country,” said Rankin. “But I cannot vote for war.”
It’s often forgotten that forty-nine other representatives also voted against the declaration that day. But for Jeannette Rankin, the decision would prove to be politically fatal.
Rankin continued to support legislation that provided services for women and children. She completed her term, but could not run for re-election because of some redistricting matters. There is little doubt that she would have lost anyway. Montana voters had been swept up in the wave of patriotism that was rolling across the American landscape, and Rankin’s pacifism now seemed antiquated, and to some, even treasonous. She spent the next two decades lobbying Congress for laws that would fight infant and maternal diseases, and working as a field organizer for the National Council for the Prevention of War.
By 1939, Nazi aggression had taken Europe back to the brink. But America was worn out by the Great Depression, and many people felt that the country needed to focus on its own problems. The possibility of getting drawn into another long and brutal conflict was unthinkable. Rankin’s political drive was rekindled, and she was again elected to Congress, where she consistently challenged President Franklin Roosevelt’s inclination toward war. She wasn’t alone in her view that the United States should avoid direct involvement. But when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Rankin did stand alone.
On December 8, 1941, Roosevelt asked for a congressional declaration of war. Jeannette Rankin cast the only opposing vote. Later, several of her fellow congressmen urged Rankin to change her vote in order to make the results unanimous, but she stood firm. “As a woman, I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”
Rankin never wavered in that stance. In the early 1950s, she objected to the deployment of American troops in Korea. In 1968, at the age of eighty-seven, Rankin spoke out against the Vietnam War, leading several thousand protestors in a demonstration at the Capitol in Washington. She continued to travel, speak, and demonstrate right up until her death in 1973.
For now, let’s set aside the complicated debate about when – or whether – war is justified. I believe Jeannette Rankin is one of the strongest symbols of democracy to ever appear in American politics. She held fast to her convictions, and did so in the face of unimaginable pressure, professional alienation, and public scorn. She understood that freedom made room for differing opinions, and that those differences strengthened rather than weakened a system of government, as well as the society it served.
As I said, I don’t have heroes anymore, and if I did, it would be a pretty short list. But Ms. Rankin would definitely get my vote.
Happy birthday, Jeannette, wherever you are.