A stalwart anti-war voice

Published 9:31 pm Friday, February 5, 2016

By Frank Roberts

Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, was the only representative to vote against the nation’s entry into World War I and World War II. Her story is fascinating.

She died in 1973 in Carmel, Calif., at 92. It is almost an understatement to describe the Montana Republican as a lifelong pacifist. She also was one of our country’s earliest women suffragists.

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Incidentally, she served just two terms in the House of Representatives, 1917-1919 and 1941-1943, the war years — both wars.

Her dissenting “no war” votes surprised no one who had followed her career and who was aware of her strong belief that violence cannot solve human disagreement. And this woman was all for women and their rights. She introduced the first bill to grant women citizenship independent of their husbands, and she introduced the first bill for government-sponsored instruction of hygiene in maternity and infancy.

Rankin’s campaign was on a strong peace platform and, according to the New York Times, she devoted her energy to peace organizations and women’s activist groups.

She spent seven decades promoting her beliefs, never wavering, never backing down. “I have plenty of work cut out for me,” the Missoula native once said.

Regarding her first vote against entering The Great War in 1917, she bluntly declared, “I want to stand behind my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

In 1940 she bluntly declared, “Prepare to the limit for defense, (but) keep our men out of Europe.” She cast the only vote opposed to declaring war against Japan and entering World War II.

“I voted against it because it was war,” she said later.

Peace was right, and war was wrong, to simplify her philosophy on the matter, and she devoted herself to peace organizations, especially the National Conference for the Prevention of War.

She was still at it when Vietnam entered the picture, describing that war bluntly as a “ruthless slaughter.”

She marched, she wrote letters, she made phone calls, and visited members of Congress, urging an end to United States involvement in Indochina. She said, “the people really aren’t for war. They just go along, but war is evil, and there is always an alternative.”

In elections, she added, “the people are given a choice of evils, not ideas.” She labored a lifetime for women’s rights, and declared that the ladies of America were worms because, “they let their sons go off to war.”

Rankin’s father was a rancher and building contractor in Missoula. Her mother was a New Hampshire native who traveled west to become a schoolteacher.

Jeanette Rankin, the oldest of seven children, graduated from the University of Montana, then went into social work in New York. She joined the Suffrage League, headquartered on East 86th St.

Later, she did social work in Seattle and, as time went on, she became more and more involved in the women’s movement.

In the ’40s, her field of battle was opposition to Lend-Lease, a view that led to her anti-war vote. Her final battle took place in 1968, leading the Jeanette Rankin Brigade involving about 5,000 feminists, pacifists, radicals, students and others. They went to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate against the Vietnam War.

Miss Rankin never married.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.