Jeanette Rankin, First Congresswoman

by Gloria Feldt on March 10th, 2009
in Women & Politics, Women's History and tagged , , , , , ,

If women had held the preponderance of political leadership roles, woud peace have become more of a central organizing theme of history than war?

Yesterday I met the Kamala Lopez, the director and producer of a new documentary film, A Single Woman, about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the US Congress. Rankin, a Montana Republcan believe it or not, was elected in 1916; that’s four years before the Constitution gave all women the right to vote.Not only did she lead the way as a first for women, she defied all semblance of political tradition by opposing both World War I and World War II. The film’s website sums up Rankin’s life in brief:

A Single Woman is the story of first US Congresswoman and lifelong pacifist, Jeannette Rankin (played by actress Jeanmarie Simpson). Her humble beginnings in Montana during the era of the Indian Wars awakened her deeply pacifist nature.

She ran for Congress in 1916 and won, against all odds. The subject of her first vote (against President Wilson’s WWI war resolution) set the stage for her destiny. Most of the Suffragists who supported her campaign turned against her, believing that her anti-war vote made women look weak and hurt the movement.

In 1920, Jeannette was founding vice-president of the American Civil Liberties Union who, in 1933, tried to persuade President Roosevelt to revise immigration laws and allow Jewish refugees into the United States.

Twenty-two years later, in 1940, Jeannette was re-elected as Congresswoman from Montana on a peace platform and once again voted against a world war, this time as the lone anti-war voice in the American Legislature. She was mobbed and vilified and spent the rest of her life traveling to India and studying the teachings and methods of Mohandas Gandhi and the effects of colonialism on peoples all over the world.

During the Vietnam era, she enjoyed a renaissance when the anti-war culture of the day celebrated her perseverance as a dedicated pacifist and human rights advocate. She died in 1973.

The film begins in 1972, when Jeannette Rankin is 92 years old and vigorously engaged in Second Wave Feminism as well as the anti-war movement. As the film moves backward in time through her years working as the first US Congresswoman, peace lobbyist, suffragist and labor advocate, a tale of an encounter between settlers and American Indians moves forward concurrently.

This pivotal story from Jeannette’s childhood is told through a series of exquisite hand-drawn illustrations of the American frontier in the late nineteenth century and voiced by prominent actor/activists.

Cutting-edge filmmaking techniques coupled with the contributions of virtuoso artists such as Joni Mitchell, Patricia Arquette, Karen Black, Peter Coyote, Mimi Kennedy, Margot Kidder, Elizabeth Peña and Cindy Sheehan, elevates A Single Woman to transcend traditional biography.

Be sure to watch the trailer here for a small whiff of what truly solitary, ahead of the curve, leadership feels and looks like. And listen to an oral history interview with Rankin, who lived long enough to oppose the Viet Nam War before she died at age 93.

To be sure, many leaders who have been women–Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher for example–were far from pacifists. Still, most of the peace movements have been started and led by women throughout history. Jeanete Rankin’s story is an important study in the complexities of leadership and an important part of women’s history.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

One Response to Jeanette Rankin, First Congresswoman

  1. Just a little correction – the Oral History project is not available in audio, but in written transcript form. It’s a great read and one of my main sources for the play that inspired the film.

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