A Lone Woman’s Voice

 

JEANNETTE RANKIN: A Political Woman

by James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski

Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2005, 317 pp., $34.95, hardcover

 

 

Reviewed by Renée Loth

 

In journalism school, fledgling reporters are taught that stories with superlatives — the first, the best, the most, the only — are by definition news. By those lights, Jeannette Rankin — the first woman elected to the US Congress, four years before national suffrage — would be an interesting story by default. But Rankin was also the only member of Congress to cast votes against both World War I and World War II, and her career may be the best argument that women who enter politics bring a distinctly different voice to the public debate.

It is curious, then, that the handful of published biographies of Jeannette Rankin have been so disappointing; either frank hagiography or two-dimensional treatments by doctoral students. James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski have set out to correct this with Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman. The two professors at the University of Montana have produced the first fully rounded portrait of this conflicted American pioneer: her firebrand devotion to women’s suffrage and peace are here; but also her stubborn ambition, her neediness, and her casual racism in the service of ending discrimination against her sex.

The book is particularly useful in limning the relationship between Jeannette and her brother, the rich and calculating Wellington Rankin, without whose resources Jeannette’s political career would never have taken off. And it ranges beyond mere curriculum vitae with an intriguing — though not always successful — evaluation of Rankin’s feminism in a modern context, bringing in everyone from Catharine McKinnon to Simone de Beauvoir. Like many of today’s public women, the never-married Rankin made sacrifices in her personal life, forsaking ‘‘having it all,’’ to use the pop phrase. Or, as the authors put it, ‘‘She starved her private realm in order to have her public career.’’ But much of Rankin’s story is unique to her times, and the contemporary analysis sometimes seems a stretch.

Rankin was born in 1880, the first child of seven for Olive Pickering and John Rankin, successful ranchers and builders outside Missoula, Montana. Their elegant house was the first in town to have heat. (Sixty years later, Jeannette would live without running water in a somewhat failed utopian experiment near Watkinsville, Georgia.)

Restless, intense, and privileged, the young Jeannette left home as soon as she was able. She was influenced by the social reformers of the era — Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, especially — and by the young bohemian women of the Heterodoxy Club in Greenwich Village, whom she visited often. But Rankin was no social worker; she found her brief time working at an orphanage in Washington state ‘‘suffocating.’’ Rather, she was a political organizer and brilliant at it. She gave her first speeches for women’s suffrage on street corners in Seattle, then spent six years campaigning for the vote, crisscrossing the nation at a feverish pace and in equal measure inspiring strangers and alienating her supervisors and colleagues.

A fluke of Montana politics—members of Congress were elected at large, not by district, so residents had one vote to ‘‘spare’’—propelled her to Washington in 1916. ‘‘The first petticoated member,’’ in the words of the New York Sunday American, was more of a novelty in the supposedly sophisticated East than she had been on the Montana frontier. Throughout her life she combined feminism, pacifism and radicalism into a potent political identity that was often belied, the authors argue, in her private life. For Rankin, the personal was not particularly the political.

Suffrage was what animated Rankin’s 1916 campaign, but peace was what defined her term in office. When she voted against World War I she had fifty colleagues with her but she trembled, saying ‘‘I want to stand by my country but I cannot vote for war. I vote No.’’

She was reviled for that vote, even among women who shared her essential pacifism. Many suffragists thought her maverick actions would hurt the cause. Carrie Chapman Catt complained that ‘‘every time she answers a roll call she loses us a million votes.’’ When Rankin’s district was gerrymandered the next year, she chose to run for Senate instead, splitting the movement again by challenging a strong prosuffrage incumbent, Thomas J. Walsh. In that election Catt pointedly endorsed the man. Rankin lost badly.

By the time she returned to Congress in 1940, Rankin’s pacifism and feminism were fully integrated. She cast her vote against World War II -- this time no one stood with her -- with no trace of faint-heartedness. ‘‘As a woman I cannot go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,’’ she said. Her political comeback also lasted only one term.

Rankin lived such a long life -- she died in 1973, at age 93 -- that she was a contemporary of a wide range of public figures, from Mary ‘‘Mother’’ Jones to Ralph Nader. She lived long enough to lend support to a new generation of opponents to the Vietnam war, women who formed ‘‘Jeannette Rankin brigades’’ in 1968. To the end of her life she was a feminist and reformer; she supported birth control and electoral changes such as proportional voting, and two years before her death she traveled to an ashram in India to examine Mohandas Gandhi’s educational methods.

It is interesting to note the political crosscurrents that ran though Rankin’s life and times. Suffrage was a kind of empty vessel into which advocates of all political stripes poured their hopes and aspirations. Sometimes the movement was aligned with conservative causes such as temperance and other efforts to counterbalance the violent, corrupt, or philandering male. As one Rankin supporter in Wisconsin put it in a campaign song:

She will win for us the fight

She will win for us the battle

Johnny Booze be put to flight

Long will ring her praise and glory

 

Other times, suffrage was embraced by radicals who thought women’s votes would ‘‘break the alleged control of the privileged class.’’ Still other times, it was a convenient mask for racism, as when suffragists assured Southerners that the votes of white women would be a useful counter-balance to those of blacks.

Rankin herself saw suffrage as inextricably linked to peace; she believed women were the true agents of social change and the only hope for ending war. During World War II a frustrated Rankin told a friend, ‘‘I am going to live as peacefully as I can, and let the world kill off the men.’’

Rankin’s unwavering pacifism also led her to strange alliances. The champion of equality seemed not to see the irony in her enthusiastic backing of Charles Lindbergh, whose opposition to World War II was informed by nativism and anti-Semitism. Ultimately, for Rankin, fighting war trumped fighting discrimination.

This last is just one example of the ‘‘paradoxical reformer’’ Lopach and Luckowski reveal. Rankin identified with the poor and tried a hardscrabble experiment on a Georgia farm, but she came from a wealthy background and lavished money on her elegant wardrobe. She was fiercely independent but relied almost neurotically upon her brother for advice and cash. She claimed solidarity with labor unions fighting the Anaconda Copper Company in Butte, Montana, but she allowed her own ranch hands to be ill-treated, and she reaped the profits of their poor working conditions.

Lopach and Luckowski have taken full advantage of the trove of Rankinalia collected in Montana (much of the rest is at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Jeannette Rankin is thoroughly researched, drawn from seemingly every book or article ever written about Rankin, her own extensive papers and speeches, and author interviews, including one with Louise Replogle, Wellington Rankin’s second wife.

The authors choose endnotes to support their frequent quotations, necessitating constant flipping to the back of the book. In many cases just a few generic words are placed in quotes, as when Wellington Rankin tells Jeannette ‘‘he would back’’ her in a campaign. For me, the technique created a choppy effect that grates on the inner ear. It is important to be scrupulous, of course, but better writers could have woven the tale more seamlessly while still giving proper attribution to their sources.

The authors also consciously choose not to present Rankin’s biography in chronological order, preferring a more thematic organization. But the book could have benefited from a narrative thread. The story jumps around, and some dramatic moments are given short shrift, including Rankin’s vote against World War II and the moment of triumph when the 19th Amendment was at last adopted.

On the enduring question of whether the presence of women in public life fundamentally changes the debate, the whole of Rankin’s life answers “Yes.” Rankin was not, like Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir, a political woman bent on proving her bonafides with militaristic rhetoric. (Even former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who is referenced favorably in the book, thought it necessary to serve a stint on the Armed Services Committee before she could run for president.) Rankin, by contrast, was what the authors call a ‘‘cultural feminist,’’ at least in her public life, believing that women speak in a distinct and valuable voice, one that men can never duplicate.

Eighty-six years after women achieved suffrage, just fifteen percent of the US Congress is female. Electing more women to public office is not merely a matter of simple equity. As Jeanette Rankin proved, it can mean the difference between war and peace—between life and death.

 

Renée Loth is the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe.

 

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