Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Jeannette Rankin

Not entirely forgotten, Jeannette Rankin deserves more attention than she gets. A fascinating woman, mostly known for her vote against the United States entering World War II, she also led fights against other wars, was an important suffragist in the Pacific Northwest, and kept the left wing of progressive ideology alive well into the 1970s.

Born in Montana in 1880, Rankin attended the University of Washington where she became interested in social work, like many young women of her day. She moved to New York and did some work in that field, but moved back to Washington and by 1910 was fighting for the successful vote for suffrage in that state. She did the same in her home state of Montana in 1914. She parleyed her regional fame into a seat in the House of Representatives from Montana in 1916. She was the first woman to be elected to that body, four years before women could vote across the nation. She soon lost that seat however, because she voted against American entry into World War I. This was unpopular, but ultimately many people opposed American involvement. They were swept away in the hysteria following our entry, but in the long run, their views were respected by many Americans. Like many a politician, Rankin's views turned as she was savagely attacked in the media and by many of her fellow suffragists. Thereafter, she supported the draft and Liberty Bonds. She lost in the Republican primary in 1918 for the US Senate.

Again, like many a politician, after she left electoral office, she stayed in Washington, D.C., working as a lobbyist. Working largely for women's issues, she urged the passage of Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided federal money for the welfare of women and children. The bill passed in 1921, though it faced constant criticism from conservatives and was repealed in 1929. She also played a key early role with the American Civil Liberties Union, serving as its first Vice-President. She worked with the National Consumers' League, which used consumer pressure to improve the conditions of workers. She was a leading member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. And she allied herself closely with the settlement house movement still going strong in the interwar years. She also began spending much of her time on a farm in rural Georgia and worked against all odds for progressive causes there.

Rankin still had the itch for electoral office and in 1940 was again elected to the House from Montana. However, like her first term, her tenure was dominated by her pacifism. Again, the United States entered a foreign war. But unlike World War I, virtually no one opposed World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But Rankin voted with her conscience and against US entry, the only member of Congress to do so. Not surprisingly, this killed her political career and she didn't even bother to run for reelection in 1942, knowing that she had no chance of winning.

After the war, Rankin remained active in political life. She supported the non-violent doctrines of Martin Luther King. Well into her 80s, she was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam. In 1968, she led a march of 5000 women, the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, to the steps of Congress to protest the war. She died in 1973 and left her estate to fund poor women, which it continues to do today.

A remarkable woman, Rankin is probably the most admirable figure to come out of Montana (though Gary Cooper is close of course). I often object to the Progressives on multiple levels, but it is hard to attack Rankin. Was her vote on World War II right? No. Perhaps if she had to cast the deciding vote, she would have come down differently, though I doubt it. But she stood by her pacifist principles, and they are good principles, if perhaps utopian. Throughout her long career, she also worked to further the rights of women, something almost totally forgotten about her today. Rankin deserves further study. Moreover, she has much to teach modern liberals. We can learn from her, and we should.

Perhaps the best book on Rankin is Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin, America's Conscience, published by the Montana Historical Society in 2002. An interesting take on the subject is a book about her brother Wellington Rankin, Wellington Rankin: His Family, Life, and Times. It's a small book published by a local press but nonetheless provides a useful perspective on Jeannette and her family.