Jeannette Rankin, Suffragist and Pacifist: She Speaks for Me

Jeannette Rankin, Suffragist and Pacifist: She Speaks for Me

By Jeanmarie Simpson

June 29, 2011

In October 2002, I was scrolling around on the Internet, when an image caught my eye of a woman wearing a fur and a hat that seemed to be a yard in diameter. At that time, my mind was nearly paralyzed with worry. My son had joined the Navy in 2000 when he was 19 to try to get help paying for college. The help never came, but he had recently told me that he would probably be deployed to the Middle East in the first wave if the U.S. went to war in Iraq. The Afghan war had already been underway a year, and I was sick about it, too.

The woman in the hat on my computer screen was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman member of Congress. The site explained:

“A pacifist, Rankin was one of the few who voted against entering into war with Germany in 1917.”

I had never heard of Jeannette Rankin. I didn’t know a woman was in Congress before suffrage. I didn’t know a woman had voted against U.S. entry into World War I. And, at that moment, the trajectory of my life changed forever.

I began to research almost immediately, finding a biography, Flight of the Dove, and the online Suffragists Oral History Project at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. Then I found a more recent biography, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience.

I started out writing a solo theater piece that soon became unwieldy. With the help of a dramaturg, I expanded the work to incorporate another actor. In January 2004, I opened my duet performance work, A Single Woman, at the California Stage in Sacramento. From the first of her words that I encountered, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake,” she began speaking for me. Through me, yes, as an actor, but for me as a mother, as a peace activist, as a citizen of the world.

By the time she stumped for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1915, Jeannette Rankin had connected the dots between poverty and militarism, and between atrocious labor conditions and corporate greed.

“War is a stupid and futile way of attempting to settle international difficulties. It can and will be avoided when the people have the controlling voice in their government. Today special, privileged, commercial interests control the world.”

In 1937, as the nation felt the rumblings from Europe and Asia, Jeannette Rankin’s common sense approach appealed to peace advocates and isolationists alike.

“American mothers’ sons have died on foreign battlefields to support profiteers in their luxury living. All the businesses that engage in war profiteering should be made to pay each employee, owner, director, trustee or what have you, the minimum soldier’s wage. And everyone should be given a tin cup and a bread card and subsist on the same food the soldier does. The same goes for the President and all the representatives in Congress, and they should also be given the honor of carrying the flag in battle so they can feel they’re doing their bit.”

Every word Jeannette spoke is as relevant today as it was when she said it. In 1968, she protested the Vietnam War and demonstrated at the head of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a march of 5,000 in Washington D.C.

“TV Reporter: How are we going to bring the boys home from Vietnam

Jeannette: The same way we got them there. With planes and ships.

TV Reporter: Do you think this is an effective way of getting your point across

Jeannette: This is no time to be polite. We “women” should picket everything, and be willing to go to prison. American mothers remind me of the cows on our ranch in Montana. A cow has a calf, and after awhile, some man comes along and takes it away from her. She bawls for awhile, then goes on and has another calf. If we had ten thousand mothers willing to go to prison, that would end the war. But we’ve had ten thousand mothers sit back and let their sons be killed in Vietnam.”

Today, my son has returned from his second deployment, a year in Afghanistan. As the Pentagon budget passes with the largest allocation ever, I am driven to bring Jeannette’s story forward once again.

(The year is 1972.)

“TV Host: What do you suggest that the young people do now

Jeannette: Organize! Go, go, go! Remember that Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” So for god’s sake, VOTE! Small use it will be to save democracy for the race, if we can’t save the race for democracy — Our time is up See, they never let me say everything I want to say. They never let me finish.

TV Host: Quickly — If you could relive your life, what would you do differently

Jeanette: I would do it all again. Only this time, I’d be nastier.”