Quote of the Week November 8, 2019

Good morning, it’s Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation from American history’s rich trove, a line meant to be uplifting. This being the first week of November — and Election Day being just one year away — this week we’ve looked back on previous presidential campaigns.

On this date in 1892 Grover Cleveland became the first — and only — president elected to non-consecutive terms. Exactly 40 years later, Franklin Roosevelt won in a landslide over Herbert Hoover. On Nov. 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy prevailed in a squeaker over Richard Nixon. Just six years later to the day, movie and television star Ronald Reagan became governor-elect of California. George H.W. Bush was elected president on a Nov. 8.

This morning, however, I’m focusing not a presidential campaign but on a congressional election in the great state of Montana, way back in 1916. On this date in that year, newspaper readers from coast to coast awoke to the news that the Treasure State was sending one of its own treasures to Capitol Hill. The new House member’s name was Jeannette Rankin, and she was the first woman ever elected to a seat in Congress.

Image result for jeannette rankinWhen remembering feminist pioneer Jeannette Rankin, it’s important to keep in mind something that no contemporary of hers could ever forget: She was not only a suffragist but a deeply committed pacifist. The two movements were closely intertwined at the time, so that’s no surprise. The view of most politically active women at the time was that more women in government would translate to fewer wars. It was an appealing idea and remains so.

As for Rep. Rankin, she kicked off the 1918 House debate on the constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage by invoking the language used by President Wilson to rally support for U.S. entry into World War I.

How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen?” she told her fellow lawmakers. “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

As for the resolution authorizing Wilson to send troops to Europe, Rankin had no trouble answering that question. She voted no.

“As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she explained. “I wish to stand for my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born in 1880 on her parents’ ranch outside Missoula, the oldest of six children. She graduated from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology and went into nursing, as did many women of her generation. But her restless spirit led her out of the Mountain West. She set out for San Francisco, lived a while in Washington state and then New York City, working at a hospital in a sprawling slum on the Lower East Side.

It was there that her political views took shape, and one of the conclusions Rankin reached was that if women could vote, politicians would take a more active role in addressing the needs of the poor. That worldview reverberates forward to our time, to current elections, and helps explain the much-discussed “gender gap.” Rankin also extrapolated gender politics onto war:

“The peace problem,” she said, “is a woman’s problem.”

Her vote against U.S. entry into World War I was not a popular position, but Rankin explained: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As it would happen, she was briefly back in Congress when Pearl Harbor was attacked more than two decades later. Rankin also voted against entering World War II, a stubborn and impossible stance that effectively ended her congressional career. But she never wavered.

After living abroad for many years, she returned to the Unites States, ending up back in the West, in the picturesque California seaside town of Carmel. From time to time, she’d be sought out by antiwar activists, newspaper reporters, and young feminists. She didn’t disappoint them.

She died in Carmel in May 1973, a month before her 93rd birthday. Only a couple of years earlier, she’d dropped hints of a possible run for Congress as a peace candidate opposed to the war in Vietnam. She was half-kidding about running, but about war itself she was always deadly serious.

Asked about whether it made sense for the U.S. to leave Vietnam after so much American sacrifice there, she replied: “Surrender is a military idea. When you’re doing something wrong, you stop.”

And that’s our quote of the week. 

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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