Monday, June 11, 2007

Ever Try to Win an Earthquake?

"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." -- Jeannette Rankin.

Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, was born on this day in 1880 near Missoula, Montana.

A graduate of the University of Montana with a B.S. in biology, Rankin taught briefly in Montana before settling in New York and attending the School of Philanthropy studying social work. She worked briefly at a children's home in Spokane, Washington, studied at the University of Washington and joined the women's suffrage movement, returning to Montana in 1910 to lobby for the passage of the suffrage bill introduced there as the first woman to speak before the all-male Montana legislature.

Rankin drew a forceful connection between conditions of poverty and the inability of women to affect the democratic process, as well as arguing that women were being taxed without representation. While she was unsuccessful in Montana, she attracted the attention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which appointed her as a field secretary. She successfully directed the effort for suffrage in North Dakota, then quit NAWSA and returned to Montana to continue the suffrage fight.

In November 1914, Montana granted women the right to vote. Running as a Republican for one of Montana's 2 at-large congressional seats, Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. Young and attractive, she became an object of media curiosity, but she also bore the responsibility, somewhat unfairly, of being the voice of American women in Congress. Thus, her position on the most important issue before the 65th Congress, American entry into World War I, became a hotly debated topic among leaders of the suffrage movement. NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt cautioned that a vote against the war would make women seem unpatriotic (and many had not yet received the right to vote which would be guaranteed by the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1920); meanwhile, the more radical Alice Paul thought that women should stand together for peace.

With the first vote on the issue of war ever cast by a female parliamentarian in the history of the Western world, Rankin voted with 49 other congressmen against Wilson's declaration of war in 1917 -- a position that cost Rankin her seat in the following congressional election. In one term, however, Rankin served as the ranking minority member of the special committee which drafted the women's suffrage amendment; sponsored a women's health education bill which later passed as the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921); presented the demands of the Industrial Workers of the World to the federal government during the Anaconda Copper Company strike in Butte, Montana; and enjoyed immense popularity throughout the country.

After leaving Congress, Rankin joined the pacifist cause with all her energies, helping to found the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919, repeatedly testifying before Congress against military budget increases, and lobbying for women's and children's legislation around the U.S.

As World War II loomed on the horizon, Rankin ran for Congress again in 1940, and with the help of well-known pacifists such as Bruce Barton, she won. Although Speaker Sam Rayburn would not permit her to speak against the War, she nonetheless voted against it -- this time as the only representative to do so -- and was jeered on the House floor. Failing to win reelection, in later years Rankin traveled to India to study nonviolent resistance with Mahatma Gandhi and organized an anti-Vietnam War march on Washington at the age of 88.

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