Celebrating Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

For Congress, Jeannette Rankin, Republican Ticket, circa December 1917.

By Don Knutson, WILPF US Life Member

On November 5, the Sacramento Valley Branch of WILPF commemorated the centennial anniversary of the election of the very first woman to the United States Congress, Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican and lifelong pacifist. This took nearly 130 years after the founding of the Republic! We invited Jeanmarie Bishop from Phoenix, AZ, the author of the play “A Single Woman,” about the life of Rankin, to appear at the California Stage in midtown Sacramento. Her play had been performed at that same stage in 2004 for a two-week run. Preceding her performance, the local Raging Grannies performed suffragette songs in a sing-along.

Bishop mentions in her work that shortly after Rankin’s election in 1916, a gentleman wrote to “The New York Times” in a Letter to the Editor complaining that Rankin’s election was “illegal” because when the Constitution refers to the functions of a member of Congress, it is always “he” or “his.” This reminded me that the Founding Fathers never had any intention of including women in their “democracy”—a breathtaking realization I never learned in high school. Coupled with the burden of the Electoral College they bestowed upon us, we should reevaluate any luster they may have retained over the ages.

Along with a couple of friends, Bishop performed as Rankin in the company of an audience of about 300 and detailed that she was elected on November 7, 1916, and was very quickly confronted with the prospect of the US entering WWI. Along with some 50 other Congress members, she voted against it and soon followed that action by initiating the process that resulted in the 19th Amendment, the amendment that gave American women the right to vote and was enacted in 1920. In 1918, with her term up and her congressional district having been gerrymandered by the Montana Democratic Party, she decided to run for the US Senate but was not successful. During this time, she served as a founding officer of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was highlighted in the recent movie “Loving,” about the interracial Virginia couple who married in 1958 in Washington, DC, and who were then prosecuted for their marriage by their native state. With the help of the ACLU, the couple was vindicated in a 1967 decision of the US Supreme Court, a major achievement of the civil rights movement.

After many years of traveling to India to further develop her Gandhian-based pacifist principles, Rankin returned to Montana and in 1940 ran again for Congress and was elected. And, in December 1941, she was the only member of Congress to vote against going to war with Japan. Such a principled and courageous stand from which we can all find inspiration!

For more on Jeannette Rankin, visit “Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, Congresswoman, Pacifist” at Women’s History Matters.




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