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Jeannette Rankin, the Anti-Palin

by Jeanmarie Simpson

America's 21st Century political landscape is nearly devoid of voices the likes of first US Congresswoman and lifelong pacifist, Jeannette Rankin, whose role in American history has been jaded by jingoist reductionism.

At the age of 8, in 1888, she learned of the slaughter of her Indian neighbors in Missoula, Montana.

"It was a most disgraceful act, the most outrageous thing that could happen. What Calley did at My Lai was nothing to what they did, the American army."

At 22, with a degree in Biology from the University of Montana, she went to New York to work for the poor and earn her degree in Social Work at age 29.

"The children had suffered so much from poverty, were in such ill health, had such bad habits, that nobody wanted them. They came back and wept in my office."

In 1910, she volunteered for women's suffrage, scrubbing floors and working as a seamstress to pay the rent. She distinguished herself as a stalwart of the Washington State women's suffrage campaign.

Asked about the behavior of the English Suffragettes, she said, "I do not want to be understood as advocating violence. I am thankful that in this country we do not even have to think of it, for the men are so chivalrous and sensible and so imbued by the sense of justice, that all we have to do to win is appeal to their common sense."

"It is beautiful and right that a woman should nurse her child through Typhoid Fever. But it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which the Typhoid resulted."

Once women won the vote in Montana (1914), she studied the social conditions in New Zealand, where women had been voting since 1893. The country was young and progressive with pensions for mothers and the elderly, worker's compensation, labor arbitration and child welfare laws. She returned to the States to run for Congress in the 1916 election.

Her campaign rhetoric remain nonpartisan. She maintained throughout her life, "I was never a Republican...I ran on the Republican ticket."

Of the 177,000 votes cast for three candidates in Montana in 1916, 76,932 were for Jeannette, including thousands by women and Democrats, who were the majority in the state at the time.

In the early hours of Good Friday, April 1917, the first woman ever elected to the major legislative body of a free country cast her first vote. President Woodrow Wilson had called for a vote on the resolution for the USA to go to war with Germany. Breaking the tradition of a simple "Yay" or "Nay," Jeannette said, "I want to stand by my country. But I cannot vote for war. I vote NO."

The media drew her as a weak woman who shamed the suffrage movement. However, the mail she received from her constituents supported her position, sixteen to one. She supported measures that assisted the "war effort," hoping they would help carry the conflict to a speedy end.

She did, however, vote against the War Espionage Act of 1917, an act that became a vehicle for baiting aliens and suppressing dissent. The War Espionage Act sent peace activist, Eugene Debs, to prison for nearly three years, because he made a speech that "obstructed recruiting."

When, on June 8, 1917, Anaconda Copper Company's Speculator mine's Granite Mountain Shaft went up in flames, killing 167 men, the surviving miners walked off the job. Soon after, the lynched body of union organizer, Frank Little, was discovered with a sign "Others Take Notice. First and Last Warning."

The high war time price of copper, used in manufacturing weapons, meant that a labor strike would diminish profits. In 1916, twenty percent of the world's copper was coming out of the Anaconda mine in Butte. The miners of Montana sent hundreds of telegrams to Jeannette's office in Washington, begging her help.

When Jeannette arrived in Butte, 5,000 supporters cheered her at the train station. The police quickly pushed her into a cab. She did speak however, on August 18, to a crowd of 10,000 at Columbia Gardens.

"It is unpatriotic for labor to strike without just cause, especially in time of war. Nevertheless, it is equally unpatriotic for capital to take advantage of men whose patriotism causes them to continue to work under conditions that mean the daily, unnecessary risk of lives. I pledge you my word that I shall always do my utmost to bring about better conditions...."

Louis Levine, a Montana economics professor, described the press campaign against Jeannette in a November 2, 1918 article in the The Nation:

"Miss Rankin voted against the declaration of war.... But the real cause of bitter opposition to her is her economic radicalism. Miss Rankin has championed the cause of the workers of Montana and attacked the mining companies of the State.... the Butte Miner falsely brands her as a 'rabid Socialist.'"

Throughout her term in office, Jeannette sat on the House Committee for Women's Suffrage, rejecting the role of Chair, insisting that a member of the Democrat majority hold that position. John Raker (D-California) served as Chairman as the proposed 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, finally passed in June of 1919, after she had left office.

In the spring of that year, Jeannette traveled with Jane Addams (Nobel Peace Prize laureate, 1931), to Switzerland for the Second International Congress of Women for Permanent Peace (renamed Women's International League for Peace and Freedom - WILPF). It took no crystal ball to recognize that the Treaty of Versailles created the conditions for, among other things, a future war.

"This International Congress of Women expresses its deep regret that the terms of peace proposed at Versailles should so seriously violate the principles upon which a just and lasting peace can be secured ..."

In 1920, she was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In its first year, the ACLU worked at ending the deportation of immigrants for their radical beliefs, supporting the rights of unions to hold meetings and organize, and securing release for hundreds sentenced to prison for expressing antiwar sentiments during the war.

She lobbied members of Congress to support measures, including the Sheppard-Towner Act, providing the first ever social welfare funds for maternal and child health. As a field organizer for WILPF, Jeannette promoted Salmon O. Levinson's "outlawry of war" plan, proposing that war be outlawed by making it a crime and that a World Court be established to deal with such crimes.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office for his first term on March 4, 1933. Germany swore in its Chancellor, Adolph Hitler, on January 30 the same year. On September 10, in Washington D.C., Jeannette, Jane Addams and their ACLU colleagues addressed the President, urging him to admit religious and political refugees, in particular, victims of the Nazi regime in Germany.

During the Roosevelt years, immigration dipped, in spite of the number of profoundly endangered refugees, especially from Nazi occupied Europe. American peace societies organized emergency campaigns throughout the decade.

Jeannette was 60 years old in 1940. Running for Congress again, she spoke to crowds throughout Montana:

"The first necessity in national defense is to have loyal citizens.... education, health and economic security must be available.... Facilities for communication and transportation and modern industries to develop our resources are needed to defend our Nation against all enemies, including such enemies as ignorance, disease, and poverty...."

On election day, she garnered more than 9,000 votes over those of her opponent.

In 1941 as Europe was at war, Roosevelt ordered the American navy to "shoot on sight" in American waters. He offered Russia $1 billion in Lend-Lease munitions/military information (without Congressional authorization). Jeannette said later, "Everything Roosevelt did was a step toward war."

"On Sunday, Pearl Harbor was attacked; I had an engagement to speak in Detroit on Monday afternoon. I took the train Sunday night, and I took a radio with me, and from the conversation on the radios after the train got started, I knew that the vote was coming the next day. I got off at Pittsburgh and went back.

When they read the resolution, I asked to have it referred to committee. According to the rules of Congress, a resolution, once introduced, has to be referred to a committee if anyone asks for it to be.... I hoped...I could remove the war vote from the passion of the moment and have it at least considered so both sides of the issue could be brought out. I asked, and they wouldn't let me talk. They proved that we haven't free speech."

Contemporary writers of American history insist that Jeannette Rankin voted against US entry into WWII because she was a pacifist. Even Walter Cronkite, in a post-9/11 report on National Public Radio, incorrectly accused her of being "paralyzed by principle." Hers was a lawful request made by a duly elected member of the House of Representatives.

A shamefully dishonest history paints her as nothing but a wide-eyed pacifist.

Since Wounded Knee, in 1891, more than 260 million civilians have been massacred worldwide. That is more than six times the number of persons who died in combat in all the foreign and internal wars of the 20th century.

Today, the United States has the most dismal social statistics of any "developed" nation, while half our tax dollars still fund the military, with only a tiny percentage paying for active military and veteran's benefits.

Meanwhile, 15 million American children live in poverty. Poor funding and political tug-of-wars have broken our schools. In the USA, there are more than 800,000 homeless today, the average age of whom is nine. Our elders are having increasingly difficult times living on fixed incomes, including Social Security, and many must choose between paying their utility bills and paying for medicine. 47 million Americans, including 9 million children, have no access to regular health care. Medical bills bankrupt nearly a million Americans each year.

On June 11, 1970, a 90th birthday celebration was organized for Jeannette, ironically, at the Rayburn House Office building in Washington D.C. She wore a dazzling gold silk dress sewn by her on one of her seven trips to her beloved India, where she had studied Gandhi's works and legacy during the last years of her life.

As Gandhi had done, she viewed her life as a work of art and continued gracefully to sculpt it until the day she died, May 18, 1973.

In describing Gandhi and the potency of his message she said, "He was the greatest philosopher of our time. If his ideas don't take hold, we're lost."

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