A question for Montanans: What took you so long to honor your greatest politician, Jeannette Rankin?
Twelve years after her death at 93, and 68 years after she became America's first woman elected to Congress, Rankin's courage was honored. On May 1, a full-sized bronze statue of the radical from Missoula was installed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Rankin's courage was in her pacifism: she voted against entry into World War I in her first term in 1917 and voted against entry into World War II in 1941 in her second term.
In this season when military buffs can't get enough tales, speeches and ceremonies to glorify the anniversaries of World War II and the Vietnam war, here is the splendor and pacifist conscience of Jeannette Rankin. Twice her anti-war votes cost her reelection, and twice she turned defeat into victory by becoming an international leader for disarmament.
In 1941 Rankin was the lone dissenter in Congress for declaring war against Japan. A biographer wrote that during the floor debate, "Several congressmen came to sit beside her and urged her to vote with them, arguing that there was no question about the attack. 'They really did bomb Pearl Harbor,' said one member. 'That makes no difference,' she answered, 'Killing more people won't help matters.'
By law, each state is given space for two statues in the Capitol, but Montanans waited until now to put up their second. On May Day, they made up for it by being a large part of the celebratory gathering of 400 citizens at the unveiling in the Capitol Rotunda. The four members of the Montana delegation joined with the speaker of the House and an official of the Organization of American Historians to remind the nation that Congress has never had a member like Rankin and that American women never had a more astute practitioner of the politics of feminism.
Rankin's statue depicts her in a walking-length dress worn by women in 1916, the year she won the first of two terms to the House. Montana was one of 12 states that had given women the vote, but it was still four years before the federal suffrage constitutional amendment (the 19th) established the right nationally. "The first time I voted," Rankin recalled, "I voted for myself."
Rankin's pacifism twinned naturally with her feminism. Women, she argued, suffered violence in poor working conditions and the lack of minimum-wage laws and child-labor regulations. It was not antics to involve women in politics but an extension of their private service: "It is altogether fitting and proper that a mother be at the bedside of her child, sick with typhoid fever; it is also altogether fitting and proper for the mother to go into the public forum to adicate the causes of typhoid fever." Once, on introducing a bill -- that eventually became law -- for federally sponsored hygienic instruction in maternal and child health care, Rankin argued that since the government was already involved in hygiene for pigs, wasn't it time for hygiene for women and children.
Many suffragists who were ecstatic at Rankin's congressional victory in 1916 turned on her when she voted no to World War I. The first national vote that comes up, it was said, and what does the nation's first congresswoman do but side with the crackpots. Rankin's brother, who had been her campaign manager, urged her to cast "a man's vote" in favor of entering the war. He said later that "I knew she couldn't be elected again if she did vote against the war. I didn't want to see her destroy herself."
Rankin answered that argument with the kind of candor that made her a beloved figure in the peace movement of the 1960s, when she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade in an anti- war march in Washington: "Never for one second could I face the idea that I would send young men to be killed for no other reason than to save my seat in Congress."
In her "no" votes in 1917 and 1941, Rankin was anti-war but still not committed totally to the politics of nonviolence. Seven trips to India -- the land of Gandhi and Tagore -- and the study of Thoreau convinced her to go all the way. She gave hundreds of speeches to say that other forces besides volence -- the forces of justice, of sharing the wealth -- were more effective. She became a leader with such groups as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Women Strike for Peace. For those offenses and others the American Legion called her a communist.
Rankin served in Congress as a Republican. Democrats didn't impress her. She told of a conversation with Harry Truman in the 1930s, when he was a senator from Missouri. Rankin said she expressed her anti-war views and that Truman replied, "Well, I've always liked war. I feel we made all our advances in civilization from war."
Rankin lived to 93 to fight that kind of madness. To the end her wit shined. She said in one of her last interviews that there were no regrets. She would live the same way all over again, with one exception: "This time, I'd be nastier."