Two who voted against war, 60 years apart

No: The lonely stand against giving President Bush the power to act against terrorism recalls Rep. Jeannette Rankin, who was the one in December 1941.

October 07, 2001|By Theo Lippman Jr.

ONE IS THE loneliest number, especially when it's a high visibility congressional vote against a measure practically the whole nation supports - as was the case Sept. 14, when the House of Representatives voted 420 to 1 to give the president power to retaliate against the terrorist attacks on America.

California Democrat Barbara Lee defended her lonely stand by saying that authorizing military force to stop terrorism wouldn't work, and "I felt let's not do anything that could escalate this madness out of control."

Being that out of step with public opinion can ruin a political career, but it can also be immortalizing. Take the case of Jeannette Rankin. Rankin was the lonely one in the House's 1941 vote of 388 to 1 for a declaration of war against Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was the most dramatic of her many acts in support of pacifism, feminism and social justice in four years in Congress and seven decades as a lobbyist, advocate, organizer and protest leader.

Politically speaking, the 1941 vote was a disaster for Rankin, as had been her vote against the declaration of war against Germany in 1917. But today two private organizations bearing her name work for peace and the well-being of women, and a statue of her is on very prominent display in her home state.

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born to a well-to-do Republican family near Missoula, Mont., in 1880. After stints as teacher and social worker, she worked for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She rose in its ranks, and when Montana gave women the vote, she won a seat as the first woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The day she joined the House, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany. The measure was sure to pass the House. Friends and family tried to talk her out of opposing it. Her fellow suffragists feared such a vote by the only woman in Congress would hurt the effort for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the vote nationally.

After a 14-hour debate, in which she did not participate, she said at roll call, "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no." The measure passed 374-50. She did not return to Congress after the 1918 election.

After the war, she became a delegate to the Women's International Conference for Peace and Justice, of which she became an officer. She spent much of her time in Washington, lobbying for her causes - for the Women's Peace Union and National Council for the Prevention of War, but also for such things as child labor laws for the National Consumers League.

She decided she needed an East Coast base. Tired of Montana winters, she settled in Georgia, near the state university and Brenau, a woman's college that gave her an appointment to a "Chair of Peace." Opponents labeled her a communist. She sued a newspaper that ran a story to that effect, winning a public apology and $1,000.

As the 1930s rolled on toward that famous date which lives in infamy, Rankin became involved with other pacifist efforts, including the Emergency Peace Campaign, which counted the Quakers among its principal patrons. She testified frequently before congressional committees, opposing military preparedness legislation.

In 1940, she announced she would run for Congress again back in Montana, as a Republican. She campaigned in high schools, urging students to ask their parents to oppose the nation's involvement in a new world war. She won.

Eleanor Roosevelt tried to get her to support Franklin D. Roosevelt. She refused. In February, May, June, October and November of 1941, she pushed unsuccessfully for legislation that would, among other things, require congressional approval for moving troops out of the hemisphere.

On Dec. 8, the House rushed through a declaration of war in less than an hour. She tried to speak against the measure on the floor, but she was blocked until the roll call vote reached her. "As a woman, I can't go to war," she said, "and I refuse to send anyone else."

She was booed - in the House that day, later in press and pulpit. Only a few voices saluted her "courage." Rankin was not re-elected in 1942. (Barbara Lee is unlikely to suffer that fate. Her district includes Oakland and Berkeley. Even critics of her vote have called it "heroic" and "an act of conscience.")

Throughout World War II, Rankin spoke against Roosevelt and his policies. She accused him of provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor. She traveled and spoke in the post-war years, but there was no peace movement to animate.

Vietnam changed that.

In 1968, at age 87, she accepted a request to lead a Women's Strike for Peace march on Congress. The marchers called themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.

She remained active in her causes until her death in 1973.

Her spirit abides at the Jeannette Rankin Foundation in Georgia, which gives education grants to "mature, unemployed women workers," and at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula, which works "to teach the fundamental skills of peacemaking."

And she is one of the two Montanans chosen by the state to be honored with a statue in the Capitol's Statuary Hall Collection.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer for The Sun.

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