Posthumous Interview with Jeannette Rankin

     Please Note:All quotations in italics are direct quotes from Jeannette Rankin. The other words are from my research on this historical dynamo or from my imagination. Thank you to Ana Maria Spagna and Laura Pritchett for proposing this in one of their workshops.

As the first woman ever elected to Congress, how were you greeted by your male colleagues when you arrived on the house floor in 1916?

Oh, the men rose to their feet and cheered. I had to rise twice myself and bow to them which, if you can believe the reports, I did “with entire self-possession.” I [was] deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon me.

Were you surprised at that reaction?

A bit. I really didn’t know what to expect. But you have to remember, this was three years before they passed the Nineteenth Amendment giving the women the right to vote, and four years before it was ratified. I suspect some of them thought I was an aberration. After all, I was from Montana and the West was still considered a pretty unorthodox part of the country.

You were less popular after you voted against entering into World War I.

Yes, I was widely criticized, but I was one of 50 who voted that way, so I was not totally alone, not like when I was the sole dissenting vote against entering World War II. Then I was booed.

You said that you wouldn’t vote to send anyone to war because you yourself could not go to war. Women can now go to war. Would this change how you voted?

Absolutely not. I was, and am, still now, against all wars. You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake. . .There can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense. . . We have to get it into our heads once and for all that we cannot settle disputes by eliminating human beings.

Would you change anything if you had another chance?

I would do it all again, but this time I would be nastier.

Would you say you are a feminist?

I would definitely be on the front lines, and very proud to take a place beside Nancy Pelosi.

Are you pleased that so many women were just elected to Congress in 2018?

When I was elected I said, I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” But, what the hell! I thought we would have reached parity by now. I understand that, depending on current analysis, it could take another 75 to 100 years to reach parity. Men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn’t make sense not to use both. We’re half the people; we should be half the Congress.

Congressional First Woman: In Pairs

Since 1922, a large percentage of the women who have gone to Congress have been First Women, the first to serve, the first to serve without following a husband into a position, the first to be elected, the first from a specific state, the first woman of color, and other variations. In the 116th Congress there are also many First Women, but with a new twist. Six of those First Women in the House of Representatives share titles.

For the first time there is a Latinx woman from Texas in the Congress—and there are two. For the first time there is a Muslim woman in the Congress—and there are two. For the first time in our history, there is a Native American woman in the Congress—and there are two.

First Latinx Woman from Texas

Sylvia Garcia was born and educated in Texas. Her law degree is from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at a historically black university. She first ran for this seat in 1992 and lost to Gene Green, who then served for 26 years. When he retired, he supported Garcia and she won 63% of the vote in a seven-way primary. She is committed to women and immigrants, as well as affordable healthcare and equality for all. She was elected in eastern Houston.

 Veronica Escobar serves El Paso, Texas, where she is a native. When Beto O’Rourke resigned from his seat in the House of Representatives to run for the Senate, Escobar ran for his seat in a majority-Hispanic district. Like Garcia, she won her primary handily, earning 61% of the vote in a six-way race. Escobar is focused on the economy, as well as immigration reform, and protecting the environment.

First Muslim Woman in Congress

Ilhan Omar was the First Somali American elected to legislative office in the United States when she joined the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016. Now she is the First Somali American elected to the United States Congress and the First Muslim Woman elected to Congress. After she was elected, the U.S. House lifted their ban on head coverings on the floor of the House, so Omar is also the First Woman in Congress to wear a hijab. She supports free college tuition for those in certain income levels, Medicare for All, and LGBT rights.

Rashida Tlaib represents a portion of Detroit and its suburbs. She was the First Muslim Woman to serve in the Michigan legislature, one of ten Muslims serving in state legislatures in the entire United States. She is the First Palestinian-American Woman in Congress and also, along with Omar, the First Muslim Woman. She says, “Sometimes I say ‘Thank her’ because my Allah is She.” Tlaib supports Medicare for All, wants to abolish ICE, and supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First Native American Woman in Congress

Sharice Davids is the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Congress from Kansas. She is also the First Native American woman elected to Congress. She is an attorney, a former mixed martial artist, and a member of the Ho-Chunk people. She learned to be a strong woman from her mother who served in the Army for more than 20 years. Davids beat out a candidate who had been endorsed by Bernie Sanders in the primary. She is focused on having a Congress that functions better, and has worked in the past on social services for native populations.

Deb Haaland is also an attorney and represents the Albuquerque portion of New Mexico where she is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people. She shares a history with Davids as her mother was in the U.S. Navy. Her father also served in the Marine Corps and won a Silver Star in Vietnam. Haaland ran for Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico on the Democratic ticket but lost to the Republicans whose Governor candidate, Susana Martinez, was the First Woman governor of New Mexico, and the First Hispanic Governor in the United States. Haaland wore traditional Pueblo dress when she was sworn into Congress. Her primary focus is on the climate and environment.

Jeanette Rankin, First Woman in Congress

Montana has only one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and yet it has the distinction of having elected the First Woman representative. Montana gave women the right to vote in 1914. In 1917, three years before the rest of the nation granted suffrage to women, Jeannette Rankin ran for Congress and won. She is still the only woman to have ever served in Congress (House or Senate) from the state of Montana.

Rankin was a native of Montana, born near Missoula in 1880. Her reputation as a suffragist, aided by her brother’s pocketbook, paved her path to Congress. When she arrived in Congress, her male colleagues rose to cheer her. When she proposed a committee on Woman Suffrage, her colleagues agreed and appointed her to the committee. It was Rankin who opened the debate on women’s suffrage when it was considered by Congress in 1919, the year the Nineteenth Amendment would finally pass in Congress, after having been submitted every year for 41 years.

The vote to enter World War I occurred during Rankin’s term, and she voted against it, one of 50 no votes out of 423 cast. She was widely criticized nationally but supported by her Montana constituents. However, there was a mining disaster in Butte during her term and the union went on strike. Rankin supported the union members and Montana’s mining companies assured that Rankin would only serve one term.

Rankin spent two decades working for organizations that promoted peace and then in 1940 decided to run for the House once again and was elected. During her term the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Jeannette Rankin was the only member of Congress who did not approve the resolution to enter World War II. This time her colleagues did not cheer her; they booed and hissed.

Not only was Rankin opposed to war, but she was opposed to the manner in which some had the authority to decide that others could be sent to war. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She also argued that, if the country was going to go to war, the older men should be sent to fight so that the young men could “propagate the race.”

She was not re-elected.

After three more decades of working for peace, women, and civil rights, Rankin considered running for Congress again so that she could vote her opposition to the Vietnam War. By this time, however, she was in her 90’s and illness prevented any further stand against war. One could say she was a fierce warrior for peace.

Forward Momentum in the Senate

There were two major developments for First Woman in the U.S. Senate this year. One received extensive press coverage; the other did not.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, holds many firsts:

–First Woman double amputee of the Iraq War

–First disabled Woman elected to Congress

–First Asian-American Woman to represent Illinois.

–And now, the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office.

Considering how many women give birth, and that this country was founded 242 years ago, this seems almost inconceivable, but Senator Duckworth was the first. While she was pregnant the Senator raised the issue of family leave with the Senate. She advocated for benefits for families with young children or other family needs. She also helped overturn the prohibition of children on the Senate floor. After her baby was born, she brought her infant with her to the Senate floor, and made the news. A woman, with a baby, in public, doing her job.

Cindy Hyde-Smith

While Tammy Duckworth has received significant press, Cindy Hyde-Smith has not. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi retired in April, for health reasons. At that time the Republican Governor of Mississippi, Dewey Phillip Bryan, appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s term. She has indicated that she will run for the seat this November, hoping to utilize her background in agriculture and commerce to win support.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not only the First Woman Senator from the State of Mississippi, she is, in fact, the First Woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Perhaps, the long dry spell is not surprising, given that Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote until 1984. But in Mississippi’s defense, there are still 20 states that have never sent a woman to the Senate. Do the math: 20 out of 50 states (or 40%) have never elected a woman Senator.

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Only 52 women have served in the Senate in the span of U.S. history; and only 23 are serving at this time. Once again, do the math: 23 women out of 100 (or 23%) represent more than 50% of the population. They have said that, given past progress, it will take another 100 years for women to achieve parity in Congress. Perhaps Senators Duckworth and Hyde-Smith are barrier-breakers who can speed up the trajectory for women’s success.

 

 

New Congresswomen 2017

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-00-58-amCatherine Cortez Masto is the First Woman elected to the Senate from the State of Nevada. In addition she is the first Latina ever elected to the Senate. A Democrat, she replaced former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. She was sworn in this month, along with three other new women members of the Senate (all Democrats):

–Kamala Harris of California replaced outgoing Barbara Boxer;

–Tammy Duckworth of Illinois defeated Mark Kirk; and

–Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire defeated Kelly Ayotte

Another seat held by a woman, that of Barbara Mikulski of Maryland who retired, was filled by a man, bringing the net change of women in the Senate to +1. In the previous Congress 20 women served in the Senate; now the number is 21 women.

Only 50 women have ever served in the United States Senate. I realize we are late coming to the game, as we couldn’t vote for 60% of our nation’s history. But come on, we have had the vote for 96 years. We still only fill 21% of the seats in the Senate and twenty-two states have never elected a woman to the Senate.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-02-14-amThere are two new First Women in the House of Representatives: screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-11-01-26-amIlhan Omar of Minnesota is the first Somali-American lawmaker and Pramila Jayapal of Washington is the first East Indian-American to serve in the House.

There are 52 new members in the House of Representatives. One-half are Republicans and one-half are Democrats. A grand total of eight are women, 15% of the incoming class. Of those, two are Republicans and six are Democrats. There will be a total of 83 women in the House of Representatives, 19% of the body. This percentage means that almost half the countries of the world exceed the United States in the percentage of women represented in their governing bodies.

Although the numbers of women are discouraging, I found something encouraging among the incoming Representatives. In addition to the two First Women in the House, who represent minorities in this country, there is also a Vietnamese refugee going to Congress, Stephanie Murphy, formerly named Đặng Thị Ngọc Dung. Another newcomer, a gentleman from California, was born in Mexico and his father was a farmworker. Perhaps the congress is slowly beginning to reflect this country. Unfortunately for women, however, at the current rate of progress, it will be another century before women achieve parity in Congress.