Our Congress is lacking many qualities. It is lazy; it seldom represents the majority of the American people; it has lost the art of deliberation; very few members of the House or Senate are truly qualified to hold their positions; it lacks morals principles, and the courage to do the right think; it has lost touch with the American people and how we actually feel about the issues facing our nation; just to name a few. I will tell you a story about one Congresswoman who represented the rights of all Americans. She was a woman of courage and possessed unwavering principles. She is a model for how 535 men and women should act today.
Her name is Jeannette Rankin. She was born on June 11, 1880, near Missoula, Montana. Ms. Rankin graduated from Montana State University in 1902. Her mother had been a school teacher, and she followed her mother into that career. She was also a seamstress, and studied furniture design. After a trip to visit her brother who was attending Harvard University, and witnessing slum life in Boston’s inner city, she decided to become a social worker. She studied in New York and then returned to the west where she worked in a children’s home in Spokane, Washington for just three months.
After completing more classes at the University of Washington, she joined the women’s suffrage movement in 1910. She spoke before the Montana state legislature; they found her to be an impressive speaker.
She joined the national suffrage movement but later left to join the Montana group in 1914. Montana passed a bill giving women the right to vote that same year.
In 1916 she ran for and won one of two open seats in the House of Representatives on the ‘Progressive Ticket.’ She not only became the first woman in the U. S. House of Representatives, she became the first woman to be elected to any federal office in the western world.
She immediately encountered several obstacles; there were no women’s restrooms in the House chamber. But the worst came only four days after she was sworn in; a vote was taken to authorize America’s WWI participation. She not only voted against it, she broke protocol during the roll call vote. Ms. Rankin stood and said; “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”
She did vote in favor of several measures during WWI; she also labored for civil liberties, suffrage, birth control, equal pay, and child welfare. In 1917 she was instrumental in passing the 19th amendment giving all women the right to vote. The Senate ratified the bill in 1918, and the general public made it law.
Ms. Rankin remained unpopular with her male constituents. When her term in the House was completed, she ran for a Senate seat. She lost the primary, eventually running as a third party, and was badly defeated.
After the war ended, Ms. Rankin continued her work for peace. She worked for the National Consumers’ League, and was on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She never wavered in her efforts to decry war, fight for women’s rights, and in her efforts to champion laws eliminating the practice of child labor.
In 1939, aided by her brother’s finance contributions, she returned to Montana to once again run for Congress. She barely won the election over Jacob Thorkelson, who was an outspoken anti-Semite.
She once again faced a vote regarding American involvement in a war. Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Remaining true to her pacifist principles, Ms. Rankin cast the lone vote against granting President Roosevelt the authority to declare war. She once again spoke to her constituents saying that ‘because she could not go to war, she refused to send anyone else.’ After the press denounced her along with her colleagues, she was threatened by an angry mob, barely escaping bodily harm.
After leaving Congress in 1943 she traveled while continuing to rally against war; she spoke against our involvement in Korea and Vietnam. Ms. Rankin died on May 18, 1973.
Ms. Rankin never ceased to work for women and the underprivileged; while maintaining her stance against war as a solution to depose dictators and tyrants. She was the only legislator to vote against American involvement in both world wars. She never pandered, and she never relinquished her principles.
By James Turnage