Who Is Jeannette Rankin?

This section is provided courtesy of Allyson Adams, who toured for more than a decade with her solo show, Peace is a Woman’s Job, and later made a film of the same name. Love and gratitude, dear sister.

Jeannette Rankin with Suffrage Banner
Jeannette Rankin, Chairman,
Montana Activities, (1912-1914)
Holding Suffrage Banner.
Photo: Montana Historical Society

Gallant Warrior for Peace”
by Dr. Joan Hoff, Research Professor of History, Montana State University

(Remarks by Dr. Hoff at the dedication of Jeannette Rankin’s statue in the United States Capitol, May 1, 1985.)

DR. HOFF: It is fitting that we honor Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) today because she remains one of the most controversial and unique women in Montana and American political history. As the first woman ever elected to a legislative body in a western democracy; namely, the House of Representatives, and the only member of Congress to oppose U.S. entrance into both World Wars, Jeannette Rankin’s commitment to the cause of peace and equality grew steadily throughout her long life. From a young participant in the Progressive, Peace, and Suffrage Movements of the early 20th Century, for over the next 50 years she served her country as a “gallant warrior for peace and justice.”

Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin
Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin
Washington D.C. 1918
Photo: Montana Historical Society

The publicity surrounding her two votes against the First and Second World Wars caused great furor in Montana and the Nation in 1917 and, especially in 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The media again focused on her antiwar activities in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In fact, her public career surged and waned in 25 year cycles because of the three major wars the United States has fought in this century: World I, World War II, and Vietnam. Whether in or out of the limelight, however, Jeannette Rankin never ceased her fight for peace. Moreover, the media attention she received during these war periods should not blind us to the other historically unique and controversial aspects of her career.

For example, Jeannette Rankin stood out among most of the female pacifists before World War I because she did not have an eastern, Quaker background. Instead, she came from that rough and tough Western State of Montana, known primarily in the first quarter of this century for its cowboy and mining traditions. At no time did she attribute any of her reform beliefs or her pacifism to religion. In contrast to most suffrage and peace advocates of her time, Rankin credited her home State for most her beliefs.

In a 1916 article entitled, “Why the West Leads the East in the Recognition of Women,” she stated unequivocally that Montana in particular, and the West in general, created a unique physical environment-one we now associate with frontier or pioneer life- that had a profound impact on both women and men as they struggled to settle the land. Because they shared frontier burdens equally, Rankin thought that western men were likely to accept the idea of sexual equality and equal rights for women to a greater degree than their eastern counterparts.

Since the five other statues of women in the National Statuary Hall are all from Midwestern or Western States, there is perhaps some truth to her conviction that the West appreciated its women more than the East. Historians, however, no longer categorically endorse the Turner thesis about the equalitarian impact the West had on it’s inhabitants. However, Rankin did, and we must honor that conviction by not imposing our own views on what she thought accounted for her strong predisposition for social justice and peace. “Men in the West,“ she said in 1972 when she was 92 years old, “had experienced pioneer ways and pioneer conditions and so they gave women the vote and then women decided to use the ballot to improve things, don’t you know.”

Unlike other peace-oriented suffrage leaders before the First World War, Jeannette Rankin was not content with simply helping to win the vote for Montana women in 1914. Instead, this petite, yet strong-willed Montanan decided in 1916 to become the first woman in the country to run for the House of Representatives. Alone among women suffragists of her generation she was later able to say: “…the first time I voted…in 1916…I voted for myself.” Montana’s early enfranchisement of women made her candidacy for national office prior to the passage of the 19th amendment possible.

Aside from her willingness to assume public office after obtaining the right to vote, another unique and controversial feature of Jeannette Rankin’s views made her the first proponent of what today is called the gender gap. Following World War I she remained absolutely convinced until her death that women would play a crucial role in preserving peace.

Long before public opinion polls told us that women in the United States tend to favor peaceful solutions to world problems more than men, Rankin had come to a singular and powerful conclusion-women and peace were inseparable. Speaking in the early 1920’s in favor of disarmament she was really describing what we refer to as the gender gap when she said:

The peace problem is a woman’s problem. Disarmament will not be won without their aid. So long as they shirk…something will be radically wanting in the peace activities of the public and the state…I am aware that men are disposed to look down on the temperamental pacifism of women (which in spite of all the exceptions is a psychological fact) as something that the manly man would scorn to imitate. However, there is no other way that I can see in which peace can be realized except through forbearance from fighting on the part of men as well as women…Therefore peace is a woman’s job.”

From the 1930’s through the 1960’s she urged women to eradicate war as an instrument of diplomacy. Over the years she advocated a variety of ways for them to accomplish this task-ranging from inculcating their children with what she called “peace habits,” to participating in peace societies and antiwar demonstrations, to organizing consumer boycotts in an attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy.

 
Congresswoman Rankin with shovel.
Belle Fligelman at left, Arbor Day, 1917
Photo: Montana Historical Society

In the last years of her life, beginning in 1968 at the age of 88, Jeannette Rankin toyed with the idea of running for Congress in order once again to vote against war. In that same year she led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade in a Washington D.C. demonstration opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Then in 1972 the National Organization for Women chose her as its first inductee into the Susan B. Anthony Hall of Fame. In this third and last cycle of national attention, she remained convinced that women held the keys to peace if only they would implement their power by voting and taking other actions as a group.

Jeannette Rankin’s strong views about peace and disarmament were unique for their time because they did not make her an isolationist. Today there is a tendency to equate pacifism and disarmament with isolationism. This should not be done in Rankin’s case because she emerged from World War I believing that the United States could no longer isolate itself from international affairs. “We are living in a world,” she repeatedly said in the 1920’s “We are no longer living in a community, state or nation…whatever happens in one part of the world affects every other part sooner or later…”

Jeannette Rankin’s commitment to international cooperation stemmed from her belief that the world was becoming interdependent. She subscribed to the view that “isolation is a myth…because all nations are entangled…financially, commercially, and agriculturally.” In the interwar years she remained a “nationalist,” or one who supported very limited American commitments around the world. She was not, however, an isolationist. She did not support isolation from European affairs while accepting the use of force in the Far East or Latin America like most isolationists in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Instead, Rankin remained true to her pacifist ideals; she objected to the use of American military force anywhere in the world, except for the defense of the continental United States. Consequently, she supported international cooperation, but opposed American interventionism.“It is not cooperation with the rest of the world that the American people object to,” she said many times, “They object, and I believe rightly,…to use of our military or naval forces in coercing or punishing a nation…in which we have no interest or at most a remote one.”

As a specialist in U.S. history, I have always been amazed that she held such views and how modern many of them sound to us today. Was it Rankin’s Montana background and western upbringing as she claimed, or were there other factors which produced this most unique and controversial figure among American women leaders in this century? We shall probably never have a definitive answer to this question because Rankin was a deplorable record keeper. Documentation for her early formative years is especially scant. However, we do know the following about her life.

Born on Grant Creek Ranch, six miles from Missoula in Montana Territory, she was the oldest of seven children: six girls and one boy. Her mother, Olive Pickering, of English ancestry, left her New Hampshire home in 1878 to become an elementary school teacher in Missoula; the next year she met and married John Rankin, a successful rancher and lumber merchant whose family had migrated from Scotland to Canada around 1800.

The Rankin household represented a curious amalgam of western informality, individualism and self-reliance, along with upper middle class aspirations. As a result, most of the Rankin children successfully pursued professional careers: Harriet became Dean of Women at the University of Montana; Mary an English instructor at the same institution; Edna a lawyer and pioneer in the field of planned parenthood; and Wellington one of Montana’s most famous trial lawyers and one of the country’s largest land owners.

The ambitions of all the Rankin women were aided in large measure by the open, loosely structured nature of a fast-disappearing frontier society in Montana, which provided them with unusual opportunities for careers. It also apparently instilled in them cooperative, humane, and democratic inclinations. All of these conditions subsequently led Rankin to join the social justice wing of the Progressive Movement and from there to suffrage and pacifism after she graduated from the University of Montana in 1902.

 
Side Porch of Rankin Home
Missoula, MT, 1912
Photo: Montana Historical Society

We also know that several women greatly influenced her views. Most important perhaps was pacifist Minnie J. Reynolds, a journalist whom she met in Washington State in 1909-1910 when they were both campaigning there for suffrage. It was Reynolds who convinced Rankin that the quest for peace had to be incorporated into the Suffrage Movement. Then there was Katherine Devereaux Blake, a New York school principal and co-worker with Rankin in the 1914 Montana Suffrage campaign. She had met Blake while studying social work at the New York School of Philanthropy in 1908. It was also during this time period that Rankin first came across the writings of English sociologist, Benjamin Kidd. His works not only convinced her that the environment influenced people’s lives, but also that women were the major civilizing power of the future.

In some mysterious and wonderful way all of these experiences and influences converged in 1916 when Jeannette Rankin decided to run for national office. She campaigned and won on a Progressive Republican platform calling for national suffrage for women, protective legislation for children, tariff revision, prohibition, and“preparedness that will make for peace.”

Ironically, on April 2, 1917, the day that Jeannette Rankin was introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives as the first Congresswoman, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress and gave his famous speech about making the world “safe for democracy.” Four days later on April 6, 1917, when she cast her first ballot in Congress as its only female member, she cast it against U.S. entrance into World War I.

On that historic occasion Rankin was joined by 56 other Members of Congress. Contrary to popular accounts at the time, she did not cry, although some of the men who cast their antiwar votes with hers did. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.”Later during the First World War she threw Wilson’s words back at him with the statement: “Small use will it be to save democracy for the race if we cannot at the same time save the race for democracy.”

Whatever her precise reasons, Rankin’s first antiwar vote had an enormous impact on her long public career. “It was not only the most significant thing I ever did,” she later asserted, “it was a significant thing in itself.” This single act publicly identified Rankin as a pacifist for the first time, and from then until her death 56 years later in 1973, she campaigned against U.S. involvement in all wars.

Before deciding to run again for Congress in 1940, she spent the 1920’s and 1930’s involved in a variety of peace and disarmament organizations. As early as 1915, Rankin joined the Women’s Peace Party. She subsequently belonged to the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, the Women’s Peace Union, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (W.I.L.P.F.), and finally the National Council for the Prevention of War (N.C.P.W.). With the exception of the Georgia Peace Society, which she founded in 1928, none of these organizations subsequently lived up to Rankin’s pacifist or organizational standards.

 
Jeannette Rankin as a “Republican” 1940
Photo: Montana Historical Society

Often she opposed their political tactics or they refused to finance her grassroots plans for organizing. For example, Rankin left her position as field secretary with the W.I.L.P.F. in 1925 after it proved impossible to finance her elaborate plans for gaining western members. In 1929, she resigned in a dispute over tactics as a lobbyist for the Women’s Peace Union, whose sole purpose was to outlaw war through a constitutional amendment. Similarly, after a ten year association with the N.C.P.W., Rankin ended this affiliation in 1939, primarily because she had become much more critical than the National Council of the international policies of both Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Economic views conditioned Rankin’s brand of pacifism between the two World Wars. As America became an urban and consumer nation, those who first experienced mass consumerism in the 1920’s tended to be more interventionist than those who did not. Rankin increasingly turned away from the consumer society and led a spartan life outside Athens, Georgia, without a telephone or electricity or running water until after 1943. Although she continued to vote and own property in Montana, Georgia became her second “home,” and the Georgia Peace Society remained her base for pacifist activities from the late 1920’s until its demise on the eve of World War II. From Georgia she pursued a lifestyle without modern conveniences, organized “sunshine “ clubs for local boys and girls to teach them “peace habits,” established a foreign policy study group for adults, and transformed the Georgia Peace Society into one of the first peace action groups in the country with perennial attempts to defeat the naval appropriations bills of Congressman Carl Vinson. The Atlanta American Legion Post labeled Rankin a “communist” for these efforts and prevented Brenau College in Gainesville from establishing a “Chair of Peace” for her.

Senator Gerald Nye’s investigation from 1934 to 1936 of the role played by the munitions industry in American’s entrance into World War I confirmed Rankin’s worst suspicions about the economic origins of modern warfare. Frustrated with the National Council for Prevention of War’s increasing support for FDR’s foreign policy, she resigned in 1939; and with the backing of Senator Burton K. Wheeler, her influential family connections, the considerable peace sentiment in Montana, and the support of labor and women, she once again won a seat in the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1940.

 
Jeannette Rankin,
Kamakura, Japan, 1949
Photo: Montana Historical Society

Back in Congress after an absence of 24 years, Jeannette Rankin found that many things had changed. Among them was the fact that there were five other women in the House and two in the Senate. No longer could she claim the title of the only national female legislator. Moreover, the tone and reputation of the peace movement had changed dramatically from what it had been before World War I. Instead of being part of a broadly-based bipartisan faction within the Progressive Movement, it was now considered the bastion of fragmented, left-wing sympathizers and ultraconservative Republicans, who espoused isolationism. As a Republican, Jeannette Rankin was perceived as a conservative in 1940 because of her pacifism; in actuality her views on domestic and foreign policy had become more liberal in the intervening years.

Ironically, Rankin found herself convicted of conservatism, largely through guilt by association, at the very moment in her public career when she was forced to take stock of how far apart on socioeconomic issues she had drifted from her brother Wellington since 1916 when they both participated in the Progressive Movement. Although he supported her second bid for Congress, their views and lifestyles now differed widely. For example, he lived in obvious wealth in Montana as one of the largest land owners in the country, while she cultivated an image of semi-poverty in Georgia. He ignored instances of personal suffering during the depression, while she embraced the radical cures proposed by Francis E. Townsend and Upton Sinclair. He became a Christian Scientist, while she continued to ridicule all religion. He was embarrassed by their sister Edna’s involvement in the birth control movement, while she encouraged such activities. Clearly Wellington had lost his liberal credentials during the interwar years, while Jeannette had become more and more secure in hers.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, her private letters indicate considerable optimism about preventing U.S. entrance into the Second World War. As late as November 15, 1941, she wrote to members of her family that “opposition is stronger than ever…so it will be some time before the President will decided actually to create the incidents that will get us into war.” December 7, “the day that would live in infamy,”ended her optimism, but still Rankin could not bring herself to vote for war, saying: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” This time she voted alone with 388 Congressmen and women over-whelming her single antiwar ballot.

 Jeannette Rankin in Egypt
Jeannette Rankin, Giza, Egypt
Photo: Montana Historical Society

Once again Jeannette Rankin’s antiwar views destroyed her chances for re-election. From 1942 until she re-emerged as a national figure in the late 1960’s, she bided her time: ranching in Montana, redesigning yet another “second home” for herself in Georgia; caring for her ailing mother; and most importantly, traveling extensively abroad to study pacifist methods and ideas, especially Gandhi’s in India. Although she never lived to see any of her peace reforms enacted, she was a consistent critic of the cold war, including the Korean and the Vietnam conflicts. Increasingly she associated American expansionism with the deficiencies in the country’s political economy and with the power of a conspiratorial military-industrial complex.

Accordingly, she revived an idea she had espoused during both World Wars which called for the creation of special “profit removing” currency in time of military hostilities. She also championed other domestic reforms she thought would correct the defects she saw in the American capitalist system.

Although she had been out of the national limelight for over two decades, the Vietnamese conflict revitalized both her spirits and her career. As a “warrior for peace and justice” she ended her long career as it had begun amidst a flurry of travel and public appearances at antiwar and women’s rights rallies.

 Jeannette Rankin on Horse
Jeannette Rankin on Whitetail
Avalanche Ranch, MT, 1952
Photo: Montana Historical Society

Here in the Rotunda, I am proud to take part in the dedication ceremonies for Jeannette Rankin because she continues to symbolize our best instincts and ideals as a nation and a people. The other statue here of a Montana is that of Charles M. Russell, the noted western artist. That Montana should be represented by an artist and a pacifist some may think odd, but not those of us from the state who remember our other nationally known political figures such as Thomas J. Walsh, Burton K. Wheeler, Lee Metcalf, and of course, Mike Mansfield. All these men in their own way were rebels and reformers, and on occasion opposed war, even though they were not pacifists in the Rankin tradition.

It is also fitting that an artist who portrayed Montana’s beauty and ruggedness, and a pacifist who captured its independent and frontier political spirit, should stand in this great hall as lasting symbols of the State. I hope the Montanans gathered here today share with me the ideal that we or our children will be as representative of the beauty and independent spirit of the State’s past, present, and future as Charlie Russell and Jeannette Rankin, but especially Rankin whom we honor with this ceremony. May her uniqueness and controversial ways continue to inspire us well into the next century.

Timeline

1880
Born on June 11, in Missoula Montana, the eldest of seven children.

1902
Graduates from the University of Montana with a degree in Biology.

1904
Father John Rankin dies of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

1908
Leaves Montana to study at the New York School of Philanthropy

1909-1914
Works for the Suffrage Cause in Washington, California, Ohio and Montana.

1914
Montana women win the right to vote.

1916
Jeannette Rankin runs successfully for a seat in the U.S. Congress and becomes the first woman ever to be elected.

1917
Congresswoman Rankin is one of 56 members who votes against declaring war on Germany (WWI)

1918
Congresswoman Rankin runs unsuccessfully for a second term.

1919-1939
Rankin moves to Georgia and works as a lobbyist for Peace. Founded Georgia Peace Society.

1940
Returns to Montana to run successfully for Congress on a anti-war platform.

1941
Congresswoman Rankin is the only member of Congress to vote against declaration of war against Japan. This ends her political career but not her activism.

1946
Drawn to the work of Mohatma Gandhi, she travels to India.

1948-1971
Gandhi is assassinated. Rankin travels the world and to India six more times.

1968
Jeannette Rankin marches with 5,000 women in Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War under the banner “The Jeannette Rankin Peace Parade.” She was 88 years old.

1970
Honored on her 90th birthday in Washington D.C. and given a standing ovation.

1973
Dies on May 18, in Carmel, California.

1985
A bronze statue of Rankin is placed in the U.S. Capitol.