Have you ever heard of Jeannette Rankin? I’m willing to bet that you haven’t. I certainly didn’t know about her and her name only came to light because of a curious question I asked myself.
It seems we are living in a time of great political and social upheaval. The USA seems incredibly divided at this time, which made me wonder if there was ever a time in our history when there was a unanimous vote about anything.
My first thought was the United States entry to World War Two following the attack on Pearl Harbor. I decided to satisfy my curiosity and looked it up. Nope, not even then did everyone agree.
I discovered that one person voted against going to war. I had to know more.
That’s when I found out about Jeannette Rankin. She was the first woman ever elected to federal office in the United States. In 1916 she became a member of the House of Representatives from the first district of Montana. Shortly after her term began there was a vote to go to war with Germany. She and 50 others voted against it. Unsurprisingly, she was singled out for criticism, no doubt because she was a woman. She was not reelected once her term expired.
She went on to rise in the woman’s suffragist movement and championed social reforms, in particular a woman’s right to vote, which finally occurred as the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
In 1940 she decided to ran for a seat in the House of Representatives from Montana and won. Again, shortly after her term began, there was another vote to go to war. As a life-long pacifist, she again voted against the proposed declaration. This time she was the only person, male or female to vote ‘no’.
After the vote was taken and the session was over, she was pursued from the House floor by angry members, who cornered her in a telephone booth and would not allow her to leave. She had to call the Capital Police to rescue her and escort her to her office.
So, I wonder, how did Jeannette have the strength to vote her convictions? Certainly, she knew what was in store for her and how utterly persecuted she would be. After all, she already endured this once, twenty-five years before. She could not possibly have imagined that others would try to see from her point of view. And, she had to know how unpopular her pacifist beliefs were, especially right after the surprise attack.
I’m sure she knew, but she voted both her conscientious, and according to what she said, also on behalf of all of the mothers from Montana who did not want their sons going to war. Jeanette believed that war and violence were always unjustified, no matter the circumstances.
To me, there are at least two issues going on here. One is whether war is ever justified. There is no doubt a wide spectrum of opinion about this, ranging from the pacifist stand she, and others, like Mahatma Gandhi took, to the all-out hawks of the world who believe might makes right.
The other issue is, what kind of a stand is one willing to take based on their life convictions and beliefs?
Now, that’s a challenging question.
I want to say that I would have what it takes to stand fast, but I don’t really know. Perhaps, no one does until the situation arises.
I do know, that whether I agree with her pacifist beliefs or not, I have enormous respect for Jeannette and the strength and courage she displayed, particularly in the face of such vehement opposition.
When I’m presented with difficult decisions in the future, I’m pretty sure I’ll be thinking of her and grateful for the example of her life.
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