Do we have a shortage of female heroes in this country? Are virtuous women that scarce? Or is it simply that Women’s History Month, by eliminating women from the conversation who don’t fit the narrative of the State Department and the Pentagon, failed to achieve its goal? Why would Secretary of State Antony Blinken post his admiration for a group of women who have killed (estimating conservatively) millions of people? Why wouldn’t he instead promote women like Jeannette Rankin and the ideas for which she stood? Probably because she would have defied and vehemently opposed every foreign policy decision he’s ever made.
Jeannette Rankin is a true American hero who lived her life based on the principles of pacifism. Although I may not agree with her views on social welfare, she was clearly sincere in her motives, and she was unwavering in her antiwar stance and belief that everyone has a right to vote in a democracy.
By 1910, a thirty-year old Rankin had joined the suffrage movement, lobbying for legislation to give women a say in how they’re governed by giving them a vote. In 1914 she and other suffragettes were successful in her home state of Montana. Unfortunately, a few months prior to this success, the Great War had broken out in Europe, and she knew that the United States was at risk of becoming entangled in the conflict.
She ran for Congress (with the help of funding from her brother, Wellington) on a platform of nationwide suffrage, protection of children, and neutrality in the European war. It was these policies that propelled her to Washington as the first ever female member of Congress. This was so unprecedented, the establishment had no idea how to proceed. While they debated on whether or not it was appropriate to admit a woman into legislature, President Woodrow Wilson began to beat the war drums.
On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Citing the Zimmermann Telegram—a leaked diplomatic cable sent by Germany to Mexico proposing a military alliance against the United States—the president said:
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
[Editor’s Note: This article previously mentioned the sinking of the RMS Lusitania as the proximate cause of the U.S. declaration of war. This was incorrect. We apologize for the oversight.]
(How many times are we supposed to allow them to take us to war in order to make democracy safe?)
Jeannette Rankin didn’t buy it. And neither did 49 others in the House of Representatives, and six members of the Senate. But the joint resolution passed by majority and war was officially declared. Although many in the suffrage movement turned against her—feeling her antiwar advocacy would draw attention away from their cause—she continued to fight for women’s right to vote, bringing the discussion to House floor for the first time in 1918. She boldy stood in front of 434 men and asked:
“How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen? How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”
Two years later the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, legally giving women the right to vote nationwide. After a failed Senate race, Rankin aligned herself with various organizations, and in 1929 she was hired by the National Council for the Prevention of War, serving as their lobbyist and speaker in Washington until 1939. This, needless to say, is when she knew her voice would be needed in the halls of Congress once again, as a new world war was beginning in Europe.
Jeannette was sworn in again in 1941 and immediately began opposing war measures, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to arm merchant ships and the draft. And then, like a recurring bad dream, another provoked attack would draw the United States into conflict. The Roosevelt administration placed an embargo on Japanese oil following their aggressive military invasions in Asia. With the U.S. Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, an otherwise preventable attack brought Washington fully into World War II.
But again, Rankin stuck to her guns. And during the debate on the House floor, while Speaker Sam Rayburn allowed others to speak, she was silenced. When she was the lone nay in the 388-1 vote, there were hisses and boos hurled at her from the crowd. Capitol police had to escort her back to her office after she was forced to hide in a phone booth while leaving the Capitol.
Speaking on her reasons, she stated, “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.” She may have lost the support of her constituents, but she was able to leave Congress with her integrity intact. How many can say that?
As expected, Jeannette Rankin remained a staunch advocate for peace until her death at the age of 92 in 1973. At a spy 87 years old she led her group, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, on an anti-Vietnam War march in Washington DC holding her banner, “End the war in Vietnam and social crisis at home!”
I have a five year old daughter who will grow up learning about heroes like Jeannette Rankin, Harriet Tubman, and Clara Barton. She’ll learn principles of kindness and virtue. She’ll learn that courageous acts are not always praised, but that’s not why we do it. And although Blinken fawns over Albright, Rice, and Clinton (who is essentially just Blinken in a pant suit anyway), the United States has produced plenty of women who are worthy of adulation. When in doubt, just steer clear of the State Department.