IN THIS YEAR of splintering ceilings for women in politics, it’s good to remember Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, who was elected 100 years ago this November. Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was a pioneer quite literally: She grew up in a family of ranchers when Montana was still a territory, and hers was the first house in Missoula to have heat. But her trailblazing career also raises the enduring question of whether women bring “a different voice” to power politics. In the case of Rankin, who saw women’s advancement as integral with other movements such as pacifism, temperance, and social reform, the answer is clearly yes.
Rankin’s election demonstrates how American attitudes toward women in politics have evolved — or haven’t. The first sentence of a Boston Journal article about her historic victory describes her as a “spinster, girlish and gentle of mien.’’ Other articles spoke of her “Titian tresses,” called her “the best pie-maker in Montana” and speculated on the effect her presence would have on comportment in the House. “Profanity will become a lost art in the lobby,” lamented the New York Sun. A double standard? You bet your feathered bonnet.
What a surprise, then, when Rankin arrived in Washington, a restless, intense firebrand for women’s rights.
Rankin — whose papers are held at Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library — wanted to be remembered as the first woman to secure a congressional vote for women’s suffrage, and she did open the House debate that eventually led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. But it was her pacifism that truly distinguished her. Just 34 days after Rankin took office, in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress to authorize entry into World War I. Rankin voted no. Although she was joined by 50 other House members, only Rankin’s action alarmed the suffrage movement. “Every time she answers a roll call she loses us a million votes,’’ complained Carrie Chapman Catt. Then, as now, a female pioneer couldn’t take a step without being considered a reflection on an entire gender.
Rankin was redistricted out of her seat, but she continued a life of activism on behalf of children, the poor, and copper mine workers, and she was reelected to Congress in 1940. Now her uncompromising principles became a problem. In 1941, despite the clear danger of fascism in Europe, Rankin voted against entry into World War II. “As a woman I cannot go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” This time, she was alone, with 388 votes against her. Rankin’s inflexible stance against war drove her to alliances with nativists and anti-Semites such as Charles Lindbergh. Her political career was over, though she continued to inspire antiwar activists, including the all-female Jeannette Rankin Brigade, formed during the war in Vietnam.
Hillary Clinton is no pacifist, nor should she be. The times, the office, and the individuals are different. Gender parallels go only so far. But like Rankin, Clinton unavoidably brings a different perspective and experience to high public office, informing her causes from children’s health to international diplomacy. She helped launch the first rape crisis hotline in Arkansas, in the mid-1970s, when such services were rare. At the United Nations conference in Beijing in 1995, she declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” standing up for the autonomy of women and girls despite a country’s cultural traditions or laws. Would an ambitious male lawyer have done the same?
As a nation and a people, we are slowly coming to appreciate that men and women have different ways of seeing the world and that combining the two helps us better understand and solve our challenges. We can’t wait another 100 years to start learning from each other.Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.