A Woman of Principle

I remember my Dad looking up from the Lewiston Morning Tribune and saying, “Jeannette Rankin died.” After that he was silent for a few seconds before adding. “She was a woman of principle. She was the only member of the US House of Representatives who voted against the 1st, and 2nd, World Wars.”

I think I said something like, “Why’d she do that? The Japanese attacked us. Why didn’t she want to declare war?” Dad replied she was a pacifist and didn’t believe in war.

I’m working on a book called Ouroboros. The Ouroboros is a serpent swallowing it’s tail and a symbol of wholeness and infinity. One of the sections of my book takes place on December 7th, 1941. I tried to imagine the shock my characters felt. I drew on my own experience with September 11th, 2001. The stories my mom and older people told me, and research. That’s when I rediscovered Jeanette Rankin.

She was born near Missoula, Montana on June 11th, 1880. She was the eldest daughter of a cattle rancher and I school teacher. She was well educated, and with the backing of her brother, Wellington became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1917. She was a Republican, a women’s suffragette, a progressive and a pacifist. I’m including my hometown’s newspaper headlines from December 7th, 1941, and the Los Angeles Times from December 8th.

I’ll jump ahead to December 11th, 1941 and fill in what happened with an excerpt from the History, Art and Archives of the United States House of Representatives.

Congress, the House and Senate met to deliberate on a declaration of war.34 Rankin repeatedly tried to gain recognition once the first reading of the war resolution was completed in the House. In the brief debate on the resolution, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas refused to recognize her and declared her out of order. Other Members called for her to sit down. Others approached her on the House Floor, trying to convince her to either vote for the war or abstain.35 When the roll call vote was taken, Rankin voted no amid what the Associated Press described as “a chorus of hisses and boos.”36 Rankin went on to announce, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”37 The war resolution passed the House 388 to 1.

Condemnation of her stand was immediate and intense, forcing Rankin briefly to huddle in a phone booth before receiving a police escort to her office.38 “I voted my convictions and redeemed my campaign pledges,” she told her constituents.39 “Montana is 100 percent against you,” wired her brother Wellington.40 In private, she told friends, “I have nothing left but my integrity.”41 The vote essentially made the rest of Rankin’s term irrelevant. Having made her point, she only voted “present” when the House declared war on Germany and Italy.42 She found that her colleagues and the press simply ignored her. She chose not to run for re-election in 1942, and her district replaced the isolationist Republican with an internationalist Democrat who had served in three branches of the military, Mike Mansfield.

“I have nothing left but my integrity.” We could sure use a few like her today.