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.

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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.