Jeannette Rankin, a woman far ahead of her time

onewoman_front_lowresKevin S. Giles, a Deer Lodge native, is the author of the new book “One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story.” It tells of the pacifist convictions of the first woman elected to Congress. Her campaign came just two years after Montana legislators gave women the right to vote. Rankin, from Missoula, thought she had lost the 1916 election until strong returns came from farmers and ranchers (and their wives) across the great sweep of Eastern Montana voted her into office.


Imagine being the first woman elected to Congress, taking a seat in the U.S. House amid a sea of men on the eve of President Wilson’s appeal to declare war on Germany.

Jeannette Rankin voted no.

Imagine being elected a second time to Congress while Hitler’s Germany rampaged through Europe. Then came Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war against Japan.

Again, Rankin voted no.

Rankin, of Montana, became a full-fledged pacifist between the world wars. She believed she was voting the will of her constituents back home, which was partly true, but she also objected to government’s close ties to corporations that profited from war.

One hundred years ago, when she was elected to Congress, Rankin began to regard government as a broken instrument where “of the people, by the people, for the people” was an empty promise for many Americans.

She was a young woman from Missoula who had just spent six years campaigning on behalf of women’s suffrage in California, Michigan, New York, Montana and several other states. Like many suffragists she was a Progressive reformist, meaning she wanted to enact more laws to protect Americans from harm. Child labor was rampant, workplace safety nonexistent, vaccinations and other health and hygiene protections symbolically funded if at all.

Montanans, in 1916, elected Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. House at a time when only 10 states had given women the right to vote. The nation had no federal suffrage amendment. Congress had debated the issue for decades with fleeting interest.

After the first war vote, Rankin spoke on behalf of House Joint Resolution 200, to propose a constitutional amendment extending the vote to women. She launched into an impassioned speech portraying war as an ogre that stomped on the human condition. Here’s part of her message:

“Might it not be that the men who have spent their lives thinking in terms of commercial profit find it hard to adjust themselves to thinking in terms of human needs? Might it not be that a great force that has always been thinking in terms of human needs, and that always will think in terms of human needs, has not been mobilized? Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the nation at this time? … For seventy years the women leaders of this country have been asking the government to recognize this possibility. … The boys on the front know something of the democracy for which they are fighting. These courageous lads who are paying with their lives testified to the sincerity of their fight when they sent home their ballots in the New York election and voted two to one in favor of woman suffrage and democracy at home. … Can we afford to allow these men and women to doubt for a single instant the sincerity of our protestations of democracy? How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

Rankin wanted reform

When I began researching Jeannette Rankin’s life many years ago, two aspects of it became immediately apparent to me: she was a creature of conscience, and she was years ahead of her time in her quest to make a better government.

Those themes run throughout both biographies I’ve written about her. In the first, “Flight of the Dove” (now out of print), I set forth her life as a relentless reformer. In my new biography, “One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story,” I more closely examined the makings of her lifelong pacifism.


Rankin in 1917

I also wrote extensively about Rankin’s attempts to reform how we elect the people who represent us. First, she said the Electoral College must be abolished. She regarded it as an archaic institution that went against the will of the people. Little did Rankin know what was to come: two of the most divisive and controversial presidential elections in American history happened after she died.

In 2000, George W. Bush emerged the Electoral College winner after having lost to Al Gore by more than half a million popular votes. We know the story of the 2016 race: Donald Trump won the electoral vote, but at last count Hillary Clinton led by nearly 600,000 popular votes.

Only two other presidential races ended in the same fix. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but won the presidency. Same for Benjamin Harrison in 1888. A similar split occurred in 1824, except that neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson received enough electoral votes. The decision went to the U.S. House, which voted Adams into the White House. A fifth election, in 1960, showed electoral winner John Kennedy with a razor-thin margin in popular votes, but the argument continues over whether Richard Nixon, in fact, won more popular votes.

Rankin reasoned that ending the Electoral College would make presidents more dependent on public opinion and less on corporate money to win. A popular vote also would better serve ordinary Americans. Some people challenged these ideas as subversive in her time, but Rankin argued that the Constitution implied the power of Americans to determine their destinies through election reform.

“People can generally be divided into two groups: those who want to be ruled by a good king or a benevolent dictator or a great president, and those who believe in the sovereignty of the people and feel they should have the opportunity to govern themselves,” she said.

She also advocated direct preferential voting, multi-member districts, unicameral legislatures and more frequent use of direct-democracy tools such as the referendum, initiative and recall. Her ideas would be recognized by detractors as taking the “mob rule” approach to government, contrary to institutions such as the Electoral College intended by the nation’s founders to mitigate frequent and unwieldy changes in government policy. Perhaps to a fault, Rankin presumed all Americans shared her deep interest in government, politics, causes and ideas, as well as outrage at profiteering behind every war declaration.


Rankin in 1972

And so, it’s 2016 and in the wake of possibly our nastiest presidential race ever, we’re once again hearing condemnations of the Electoral College. Party politics isn’t what it used to be. Gerrymandering of voting districts by special interests has become a high art. Voters say their government hasn’t listened to them.

History most remembers Jeannette Rankin as the only member of Congress to ever vote against two world wars. He was applauded by many people and vilified by many others for doing so, but she was a woman of conviction who never backed down from controversy.

After she became the first woman to vote against war, as Congress rallied for a war declaration against Germany in April 1917, Rankin said of the public anger that followed: “I have nothing left now but my integrity.”

In the decade before her death in 1973, Rankin intensified her pursuit of election reform, seeking a federal amendment to put her much-discussed proposals into practice. She testified before congressional committees and took her campaign to television talk shows. Her ulterior motive was hardly a secret: Rankin thought more direct voter involvement would stop war. To her, lobbyists regulated the intent and direction of legislation, depriving ordinary Americans of their voice in government. If Congress wanted to propel them into war, how could they stop the momentum? If social legislation was shelved, who would help them get it back?

We’ve yet to find out if she was right. Most of the same concerns continue. If Jeannette Rankin were here today, she would take to the streets. She would march on the U.S. Capitol. I’m betting she wouldn’t give a hoot about red vs. blue states. Instead, she would want every American to know they could make a difference. Don’t we all?


Kevin Giles

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published “One Woman Against War” in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)

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