(WOMENSENEWS)–For a pacifist, October 1917, was a nightmare. For Jeannette Rankin, it was a test.
The first woman anywhere in the world elected to a national governing body, Montana’s Rankin had held her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for only a year. Resisting pressure from prominent suffragists who thought she would make women appear weak and set the cause back several decades, she had voted “no” to President Woodrow Wilson’s request that Congress authorize a war to “make the world safe for democracy.” That was World War I.
Now Rankin was called upon to speak up about the war raging in the streets outside the White House.
Alice Paul and the militant Woman’s Party had hurled the president’s words about democracy back in his face. Picketers stood outside the official residence with banners reading: “How Long Must Women Be Denied a Voice in a Government Which Is Conscripting Their Sons?” They burned Wilson’s speeches and, over several months, were jailed or attacked by mobs.
Rankin had managed to persuade Congress to investigate the filthy, violence-wracked prisons where suffragists and others were being held. Paul herself had been declared insane by the authorities and kept in a psychiatric ward.
By the end of November, they would be released. On Aug. 5, 1917, Rankin presented a resolution that Congress investigate the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against the pacifist women demonstrating in the streets. It was rejected.
Wilson supported votes for women the following year and “the cause” was officially won in 1920.
Rankin’s opposition to violence and war, however, lasted a lifetime, through World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In her 80s, she led a “brigade” named for her, marching in Washington, D.C., to protest America’s war in Southeast Asia.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”