The saddest quotation in last week’s Billings Gazette came from Shonn Lehmann, a volunteer weighing names for a new West End middle school.
After fellow volunteer Dana Winchell suggested the district avoid naming the school after a human being because of the politics involved, Lehmann said, “I think that’s what we need to avoid, ticking people off.”
In reality, this would be an excellent time to tick people off. The Gazette reported that in a community survey by School District 2, 20 percent of 1,865 votes were cast for Montana native Jeannette Rankin, a Republican who became the first woman to serve in the U.S. House.
Jeannette Rankin would be a superb choice for a school name, precisely because she would not back away from a fight—a war, yes, but not a political fight. “If I had my life to live over,” she once said, “I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier.”
I first heard of Jeannette Rankin when I was about the age of a middle-school student. In the attic of my grandparents’ house in North Texas was a trunk full of old newspapers from memorable dates in history. It was a narrow, musty room, illuminated by a single window set at an angle to fit under the slanted roof.
I had the newspaper bug early and read those fading, crumbling papers for hours. There I learned that one member of Congress had voted against U.S. entry into both world wars. The news didn’t make me a pacifist, but it made me think long and hard about the nature of war and the political courage it takes to stand up for peace—thoughts that came back to me a few years later when I faced my own generation’s defining war.
History may well have vindicated Rankin’s vote against World War I. A hundred years later, historians are still trying to figure out what useful purpose that war served.
But World War II remains, unalterably, “The Good War.” Not only was her vote against it wildly unpopular at the time, it remains in the view of many Americans an act of foolishness, or cowardice, or betrayal.
She had her reasons. She thought Roosevelt had been pushing America into war. She wanted a committee to consider the matter before rushing to a vote. She had a long personal history of pacifism to defend.
In 1929, she had said, “There can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible. “
Voting against World War II was the ultimate test of her refusal to compromise with war. She put it then in simpler terms: “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.” Those words should ring in the ears of contemporary politicians who favor military solutions but have avoided military service of their own.
In a way, even Rankin’s vote against World War II has been vindicated by history. Congress has never voted again to declare war. We still fight wars, to be sure, but no one is required to risk a political career the way Rankin did.
Setting pacifism aside, plenty of reasons remain to name a school after Jeannette Rankin. When she was first elected to Congress, many states still prohibited women from voting. She was an active and visible suffragist, and helped enact the constitutional amendment that gave women the vote. If she were to be remembered for anything, she later said, she hoped it would be as the only woman who was able to cast a vote to give women the right to vote.
The idea that public edifices may now only be named after philanthropists and corporate donors is disheartening. The going rate at colleges appears to be a million bucks for naming rights, a sum that guarantees only the wealthiest need apply.
So we can have a Wendy’s Field and a Rimrock Auto Arena, but naming a school after a woman who, after all these years, still pricks our consciences appears to be out of bounds. We should be encouraging students to think hard thoughts, not protecting them from unpopular ideas.
School District 2 trustees acted properly and responsibly when they named Medicine Crow Middle School over public objections. Joseph Medicine Crow grew up in traditional ways and adapted to a vastly different culture without sacrificing his cultural heritage.
It would be equally proper to name a school after Jeannette Rankin, who grew up in a world where women were expected to feed the babies and keep quiet. She didn’t adapt to those old ways; she smashed them.
If we want our children to think for themselves, to have the courage of their convictions and to fight for causes they believe in, then we can’t come up with better names to impress on their young minds than those of Joe Medicine Crow and Jeannette Rankin.
David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.