This week Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that women member of the U.S. military will be allowed to serve in any position, including those in combat areas. That’s one more step toward equal rights for women in all areas of life, but it is far from the vision of the early leaders of the Suffrage movement. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in the United States, a feat she accomplished in 1916, felt strongly that allowing women to vote and to participate in national decision would build a more peaceful world. “The peace problem is a woman’s problem….peace is a woman’s job.” How many individuals hold that view today?
Born in 1880 in Montana, Jeannette Rankin believed in equality for women and peace for the world. During her lifetime, women gradually got the right to vote, first in a few of the western states of the U.S. and gradually in all of the states. Montana gave women the right to vote in 1914, and Jeannette Rankin seized the opportunity to run for an at-large seat in Congress. She depended on her wealthy brother, a leading member of the Republican party, to finance and support her candidacy and she campaigned vigorously. Her commitment to peace was just as strong as her commitment to enfranchising women, so when in 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to vote to declare war on Germany, she refused to join the majority. She was one of fifty members, most of them Democratic, who voted against World War I. Being in the minority did not deter Rankin from supporting both of her causes—Universal Suffrage and Peace. When Montana changed its voting pattern from an at-large system to a district system, Rankin lost her Congressional seat, but she continued to be active in public life.
In 1940, Rankin was again elected to Congress and once again America was close to war. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt asked Congress to vote for a declaration of war on Japan. Once again Rankin voted against war; this time she was the only member to do so and she was attacked by the public and by fellow members. Soon after she retired from Congress, although, when asked, she said that she never regretted her vote against war. “If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.”
When the Vietnam War came along, Jeannette Rankin was against that too. She led a coalition of women’s peace groups to present a peace petition to the speaker of the House of Representatives. Even though she was in her late 80’s. Rankin considered running for office again so that she could oppose the Vietnam War, although in the end her poor health prevented that. She died at the age of 92, still believing strongly in both peace and suffrage, although she probably no longer believed that women’s votes would end war.
Now, as we lurch toward yet another war, women will at least be participating equally with men in planning and fighting. That is perhaps some sort of victory, but an equal right to suffer and die on battlefields was never the dream of our foremothers who fought for women’s equal rights. It’s a victory, I guess, but the cheers stick in my throat. Why didn’t we listen more seriously to Jeannette Rankin when she wrote: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake”?