Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My Favorite Republicans, Part 2: Jeannette Rankin

This is the second installment in my brief series of posts, "My Favorite Republicans," in honor of the Republican National Convention. By the way, I would blog about that event, but that would, you know, require me to pay attention to it. Let TPM's stitched-together highlights tell you all you need to know.

See Part 1 of this brief series on Robert G. Ingersoll here. And, yes, when I write my "favorite Republicans," I mean it.

Jeannette Rankin first appeared on my intellectual radar about twenty years ago, when I read a profile of her in the back pages of the Nonviolent Activist, the periodical of the far-left War Resisters League. Here was a woman who broke my every stereotype of what a Republican was supposed to stand for. She was the first woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first woman in either house of Congress. (That is a historical prize the Democratic Party should envy.) She was elected in 1917, by the way, before the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

Moreover, she was a pacifist, through and through. "If they are going to have a war," she said during her 1916 campaign, "they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race."

She represented Montana in Congress, the same state where she was born. In her early adulthood, she campaigned for women's suffrage. She studied to be a social worker in New York, worked with Jane Addams, was a social worker in Seattle, and did a stint in New Zealand as a seamstress. Her goal there? To live and breathe the actual conditions of the workers she, as a progressive, hoped to aid in her professional life. Hmmm... she almost sounds like... some kind of community organizer! Today's Republicans should raise their arms in an ecstasy of gratitude that they are in Rankin's political lineage. Instead they're so rapt with praise for "job creating" billionaires that they couldn't recognize a true hero--or heroine--in their midst if you slapped a giant-sized, dayglo portrait of Rankin on the RNC stage with the word "hero" emblazoned on it and a John Williams soundtrack blaring in Dolby stereo.

Rankin made a very unpopular decision in 1917. It was the first vote she had to make in Congress. When the call came for representatives to vote on whether the U.S. should enter World War I, one of the most grotesque follies humans have ever instigated, she voted simply "present." Moved by a war-resisting feminism, she decided popularity was no competitor for integrity. She was in a tiny minority in Congress, and as a woman, she was vilified for her bold decision. She served only until 1918 when her bid for the Senate failed.

Amazingly, she was re-elected again in 1940. In 1941, she voted against the U.S. declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. She opposed even the Good War. While I don't think I could have done that, knowing what a threat the Nazis were, I respect her resolve to adhere to her progressive convictions. Neither was this a popular decision on her part. She was hissed and booed when she voted no. "As a woman I can't go to war," she said, "and I refuse to send anyone else." She was not a candidate for re-election in 1942. True to her ethos, she publicly opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s, too. Incidentally, she never attributed her lifelong pacifism to religion. Was she, too, a freethinker?

Jeannette Rankin: pacifist, dissenter, progressive, feminist, Republican.



NPR's "The First Woman in Congress: A Crusader for Peace" is a good place to start here. The U.S. House of Representatives Women in Congress site has a very good biographical essay on Rankin here. The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Montana continues her tradition of anti-war activism and social-welfare progressivism.

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