Rankin, Jeannette (1880–1973)
Rankin, Jeannette (1880–1973)
American suffragist and pacifist who was the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Born Jeannette Pickering on June 11, 1880, at Grant Creek Ranch, near Missoula, Montana Territory; died in Carmel, California, on May 18, 1973, of a heart attack; daughter of Olive Pickering Rankin (a schoolteacher and homemaker) and John Rankin (a rancher and building contractor); University of Montana, B.Sc. in biology, 1902; enrolled in New York School of Philanthropy, 1908; also attended University of Washington; never married; no children.
Joined state of Washington's campaign for women's suffrage (1910); spoke before Montana state legislature on behalf of woman suffrage (1911); became field secretary for National American Woman Suffrage Association (1913); ran a successful campaign for U.S. House of Representatives (1916); voted against declaration of war (1917); appointed delegate to Second International Congress of Women (1919); became field secretary, National Consumers' League (1920); became field secretary, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1925); founded Georgia Peace Society (1928); elected to second term in the U.S. House of Representatives (1940); voted oncemore against U.S. involvement in a world war (1941); Jeannette Rankin Brigade organized (1967).
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an event that caused the Congress of the United States to vote for a declaration of war for the second time in less than 25 years. The debate over the declaration of war was brief, lasting only 40 minutes. The only person to vote against U.S. involvement was Jeannette Pickering Rankin, representative from Montana. But Jeannette Rankin was traveling a road she had traveled before. In 1917, when Congress had debated American entry into World War I, she had voted against that as well. In both cases, her position cost her a seat in Congress. Rankin spent a lifetime speaking her mind, even if her opinions were unpopular, and accepting the consequences.
Jeannette Rankin was a child of the American frontier. She was born to Olive Pickering Rankin and John Rankin on June 11, 1880, almost a decade before Montana was admitted to statehood. Despite her birth in a remote Western community, her early years showed no sign of deprivation. She was the oldest of seven; six lived to adulthood. As the child of relatively well-to-do parents, she spent her summers on the family's cattle ranch, and the winters in their home in Missoula. It was one of the finest homes in Missoula, the first to be equipped with hot-and cold-running water, central heating, and a bathtub.
It was the ranch, however, that most interested Rankin. There, she was allowed to exercise a great deal of ingenuity and initiative, traits that her father hoped to encourage. Jeannette was the leader among the children in the family, as well as their caretaker. She also pitched in around the ranch, occasionally acting as veterinarian when none was available. She was known to have stitched a horse's wounded shoulder and amputated the foot of a badly injured dog. On a more traditional note, she also used her time as a child to become an expert seamstress, an occupation she would briefly rely upon as an adult.
Education was not Rankin's first love. As a child, she tended to find school boring, and far less useful than time spent on the family's ranch. She did not do well in school, and often felt inferior to her classmates. Nevertheless, she enrolled at the University of Montana. Her undergraduate education evidently did not form the inspiration for her later accomplishments. She earned a B.Sc. in biology, writing her senior essay about snails. Nurses' training seemed to be a possibility after graduation, but her father encouraged her to look elsewhere for her life's work.
There was little to suggest that Rankin's career would be in public life. She taught briefly in country schools near her parents' ranch, and also worked as an apprentice seamstress. In 1908, evidently unsatisfied with this course, she left Montana to attend the New York School of Philanthropy, where she studied social work, one of the few occupations considered acceptable for young, educated, middle-class women. This led to a brief stint as a social worker in Montana which also proved unsatisfying. Again, Rankin returned to school, departing for the University of Washington.
It was there that Rankin became involved with the cause of women's suffrage. As a student, she joined the women of the state of Washington in their successful campaign for equal voting rights. Rankin claimed to support women's suffrage because of her childhood in the West. The Western environment made harsh demands on its settlers, both male and female, and because they shared these responsibilities equally, Rankin believed women should have equal rights. Her devotion to the cause took her back to Montana, where she spoke to the state legislature in favor of equal suffrage on February 2, 1911, the first woman ever to address that state's legislature. She had discovered her calling—politics.
In her new career as suffragist and political organizer, she visited 15 different states, lobbying for women's rights. She spent 1913 and 1914 as the field secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her work for women's suffrage also introduced her to the cause of pacifism. One of her mentors in the women's suffrage movement was Minnie J. Reynolds , who argued that peace and suffrage were intimately related issues.
Although Rankin was deeply involved in the suffrage movement, as well as in progressive politics, she never formed the close associations with other female reformers that many other Progressive women enjoyed. She greatly admired women such as Jane Addams , but she was not a part of the group of women reformers clustered around Addams and Hull House. Her brief relationship with NAWSA ended with a break between Rankin and Carrie Chapman Catt , the association's leader. Catt was not the pacifist Rankin was, and Rankin's position on World War I guaranteed a split between the two women. Catt believed that Rankin's position on World War I cost the organization support, rather than aiding their cause. Despite beginning her political career in the women's movement, Rankin was not so much identified with feminism as with pacifism.
In 1916, she decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, under the campaign slogan "Let the People Know." Rankin ran as a Republican with a Progressive agenda, advocating women's suffrage and protection of children, as well as reform of the election process. Her first opportunity to express her views on war presented itself almost immediately. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to vote in favor of a declaration of war against Germany. Rankin was one of 57 representatives to vote against the declaration. In a later justification of her action, she wrote to her constituents that her vote reflected their letters and telegrams which ran 16 to 1 against involvement in the war. In the House of Representatives, she denounced the war as "stupid and futile."
During the rest of her term, Rankin supported a number of progressive causes, such as protective labor laws and women's suffrage. Her stay in Congress, however, would be short lived. She did not receive the Republican nomination in 1918, and was unable to gain support from a third party. She also found that she had lost support from the Montanans who had sent her to Washington in the first place, largely as a result of her vote against the war.
Peace is a woman's job.
In the years following World War I, Rankin increasingly devoted her energies to the cause of pacifism. She pursued her interests not from Montana, but from her new home base in Georgia. Although she maintained her Montana citizenship, her real home was not far from Atlanta, a one-room house, with no electricity, running water, or telephone, on 64 acres of land. She made a conscious decision to live in spartan surroundings and teach peace to the local community. Her efforts included clubs for boys and girls, an adult study club, and finally, organization of the Georgia Peace Society in 1928. Her work on behalf of the pacifist cause evidently did not sit well with many Georgians. She was publicly denounced as a communist, a charge she vehemently denied. Indeed, her public record indicated that, if anything, she was generally opposed to communism.
The Georgia Peace Society was coming to the end of its life just as the Second World War was beginning. Rankin strenuously opposed President Franklin Roosevelt's attempts to aid Great Britain in the years before the American declaration of war, often going to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. She opposed the arms build-up prior to the war, Lend Lease, the Atlantic Charter, and the prewar draft. She was optimistic that war could be avoided. Because of her devotion to the cause of peace, she entered the political fray again, running as a pacifist Republican, and was elected to a second term in 1940. As an alternative to preparations for war, she proposed that the United States construct a defensive line around itself and its possessions. She also called for a vote by the American people to determine whether the nation should go to war. She often commented that "people never make war; it is always governments." These became moot issues with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Although Rankin had been one of 57 representatives to vote against World War I, she was the only representative or senator to vote against World War II. Again, she justified her position to her constituents. She claimed that her vote was based upon pledges she had "made to the mothers and fathers of Montana." She said that she wanted more evidence before casting her vote, and could not, in good faith, vote to take the United States into yet another war. Throughout the remainder of her term, she claimed that the war was the product of British imperialists who had encouraged the president to take provocative actions against the Japanese.
Once again, Rankin's career in Congress was cut short by her vote on the war. When the people of Montana did not return her to Congress, she continued her criticism of Roosevelt and his policies from the sidelines. She hoped that the women of America would come together to vote Roosevelt out of office in 1944, but they let her down. She began looking for new heroes and new causes, and found one in India. Between 1949 and 1971, she visited India seven times. There she researched Indian pacifism, and particularly the techniques of Mohandas Gandhi. She also traveled in Africa, Indonesia, South America, Ireland, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and Czechoslovakia.
Her voting patterns in these years were curious, reflecting her desire to try to find the candidate most likely to keep the peace. She liked President Dwight Eisenhower, even though he was a military man. He ended the Korean War and seemed to be trying to keep the U.S. out of further conflicts. She was suspicious of John F. Kennedy, and so voted for Richard Nixon in 1960. In 1964, she chose Barry Goldwater, because of Lyndon Johnson's escalation of American involvement in the war in Vietnam. She voted again for Nixon in 1968, but he did not end the Vietnam conflict quickly enough. By 1972, she was supporting George McGovern.
Rankin remained out of the limelight, so much so that many people were surprised to find that she was still alive when in the 1960s she again became involved in politics. Her reason to reenter the national fray was the war in Vietnam. In 1961, she watched in dismay as President Kennedy sent advisors to Vietnam. President Johnson's further military involvement led her to begin to speak out against American actions. A 1967 speech, made before the group Atlantans for Peace, was picked up by the Associated Press. Her speech notified the country that she was indeed alive and well, and still a pacifist. In her address, she argued that if 10,000 American women put their minds to it, they could end the war in Vietnam.
Her call was heard and heeded by a pacifist group, Women's Strike for Peace. In 1968, they marched on Washington to protest the war. They named their contingent the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, and Rankin herself marched at the front of the procession. Between 5,000 to 10,000 women marched to the Capitol, and Rankin was among 16 women who were allowed to enter the building and present a petition to Congress to end the war. They also demanded that Congress use its power to reform American society. Rankin would continue her activities throughout the remaining years of her life, leading marches and supporting the activities of peace groups. Though she contemplated a third term in Congress, so that she might have the opportunity to vote against yet another war, Rankin was slowing down. In 1972, she moved to a nursing home, where she died in her sleep on May 18, 1973, just short of her 93rd birthday. To the very end, she had continued to fight for the cause she held most dear, peace.
Alonso, Harriet Hyman. "Jeannette Rankin and the Women's Peace Union," in Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 39, no. 2. Spring 1989, p. 3449.
Josephson, Hannah. Jeannette Rankin, First Lady in Congress: A Biography. NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974.
Wilson, Joan Hoff. "'Peace is a Woman's Job': Jeannette Rankin and American Foreign Policy: The Origins of Her Pacifism," in Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 30, no. 1. January 1980, p. 2841.
——. "'Peace is a Woman's Job:' Jeannette Rankin American Foreign Policy: Her Lifework as a Pacifist," in Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Vol. 30, no. 2. April 1980, p. 3857.
Block, Judy R. The First Woman in Congress: Jeannette Rankin. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1978.
Hardaway, Roger D. "Jeannette Rankin: The Early Years," in North Dakota Quarterly. Vol. 48. Winter 1980, p. 6268.
Harris, Ted. Jeannette Rankin: Suffragist, First Woman in Congress, and Pacifist. NY: Arno Press, 1982.
White, Florence. First Woman in Congress: Jeannette Rankin. NY: Messner, 1980.
Jeannette Rankin Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts; oral history "Activist for World Peace, Women's Rights, and Democratic Government" at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; letters to the National Council for the Prevention of War from 1929 to 1939 in Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Pamela Riney-Kehrberg , Associate Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois