School District 2 passed up an opportunity last year to name a new middle school after Jeannette Rankin, opting instead for Bataan Death March survivor and longtime Billings artist Ben Steele. The vote was understandable, especially since it gave the community a chance to bestow one last honor on Steele, who died in September.
But there will be other schools, and other buildings, and one can only hope that Rankin will be remembered the next time a naming opportunity comes up. Rankin, a Missoula native, not only was the first woman elected to Congress, she was the only woman able to cast a vote in Congress for the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote.
A new article in the Washington Post reminds us that Rankin sacrificed her political career twice to vote against world wars. And if her votes may have been ill considered, her motives were pure.
“As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said to boos on Dec. 8, 1941, as the House of Representatives voted 388 to 1 against her.
A new book about America’s entry into World War I chronicles Rankin’s later years: “She moved to a dirt-floor house in Georgia, kept up her love for cars, always made sure to dress well, and in later years wore an ash-blond wig. In 1968, at the age of 87, she led a march of several thousand women on Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. They called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
“‘We’ve done all the damage we can possibly do in Vietnam,’ she told the New York Times. ‘You can’t settle disputes by shooting nice young men.’”
There may never have been a time in American history when we more urgently needed a reminder of what it means to put country ahead of personal political gain. No one teaches us that lesson better than Jeannette Rankin.