John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage praises U.S. senators throughout American history who stood against overwhelming popular sentiment to vote their conscience. That book and similar stories inspire me. Abraham Lincoln cast the sole vote of opposition against going to war with Mexico back in 1848 when Lincoln was in the U.S. House. Then I learned about another representative who had stood in that courageous line with Lincoln and the senators whom Kennedy profiled: Jeannette Rankin. Her votes against entering World War I and World War II were castigated by many as disloyal, but she was always clear about her convictions to her constituents and her colleagues in Congress. She was a mother for the peace movement and a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which continues today. I’ve been honored to march for peace alongside many of Rankin’s “daughters.”
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973)
There can be no compromise with war. It cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense, for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.
Only one person in Congress voted against participation in both World War I and World War II. That person was Jeannette Rankin, daughter of a rancher from Montana. She was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives—in fact, the first woman elected to a national legislature in any Western democracy. She was a tireless advocate for peace.
Rankin worked briefly as a teacher and a social worker before jumping into politics and the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature, urging them to give women the right to vote. In 1912 she became the field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Thousands of suffragettes marched in Washington, D.C. demanding the vote. She returned home to help organize the campaign to win the right to vote for women in the state of Montana, which happened in 1914.
Rankin was then elected to Congress in Montana in 1916 before women could vote nationally. A mere four days into her term she had to take a stand on the monumental question: Should the United States enter the Great War in Europe? She voted with a minority against going into World War I, declaring, “I want to stand with my country, but I cannot vote for war.” She was vilified in the press, and women’s suffragist groups cancelled her speaking engagements claiming she had hurt their movement by being “sentimental.” Rankin defended herself, “The first time the first woman had a chance to say no against war—she should say it!” She maintained her anti-war convictions against the harsh criticism, though once the country was at war she voted for some of the measures that maintained U.S. involvement.
Rankin also took historic action when she opened the debate on what was known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The legislation passed both houses of Congress, was ratified by the states, and became the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Her earlier anti-war vote would cost her re-election. Her district was cut out in a gerrymandering scheme. She ran for the Senate and lost overwhelmingly.
After her term in Congress ended Rankin became a lobbyist, especially for issues of child and maternal health. She also was the first Vice-President of the American Civil Liberties Union and a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She became the field secretary for the WILPF working on various anti-war efforts.
In 1940 war had broken out in Europe once again. She decided to run for Congress, specifically on an isolationist platform, and the voters of Montana returned her to the U.S. House. This time she was one of six women in the House, but soon she would be standing alone again. After Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, the vote for war came to Congress. Rankin was the only person to vote against the declaration of war. As she stood alone to cast her vote she said, “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else. It is not necessary. I vote NO.” Later as Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, she merely voted “Present” on those declarations of war. Though she had been open about her anti-war stand when she ran and had acted consistently, she knew that war fever would prevent her re-election. She chose not to run for another term.
Though Rankin consistently voted against going to war, she was a supporter of the ordinary men and women who ended up in the military. She blamed politicians for wars, not the soldiers and sailors who fought them. She was a spokesperson for veteran’s rights and introduced the GI Bill to Congress, which provided education and other benefits to veterans returning from World War II.
Rankin’s peacemaking was far from over. She traveled to India seven times to study Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent conflict resolution—and later participated in anti-war activities especially during the Vietnam era. For the 1968 March on Washington, she organized more than 5,000 women as the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” to demonstrate there against the war. In 1970, she was still marching in the streets for peace at the age of 90.