An activist who never let up

  • Jeanette Rankin: "America's Conscience," by Norma Smith, Montana Historial Society Press, Helena 2002. Softcover: $17.95, 223 pages, essay on sources, index.


Norma Smith's biography, Jeannette Rankin: America's Conscience, records the inspiring courage, integrity and optimism of the first woman elected to Congress, dramatically recounting Rankin's struggles and successes as an activist.

Smith, a personal friend of Rankin, writes that as a congresswoman, Rankin's interests shifted from suffrage to pacifism. She often said, "The first vote of the first woman member of Congress was a vote against war," and, indeed, she was the only congressperson to vote against U.S. entry into both world wars. She argued that "shooting a young man is no way to settle a political dispute" - a view that guaranteed her loss in the next election. Held by her moral convictions, Rankin rebounded, saying, "I'm not interested in (re-election). All I'm interested in (is) what they'll say 50 years from now."

A native Montanan, Rankin championed the women's suffrage movement from the West Coast to the East. Interestingly, she did not argue that suffrage was an inalienable right for women; rather, Smith writes, Rankin fought for women's suffrage on behalf of the nation's children. She realized that "if we were to have decent laws for children, sanitary jails, safe food supplies, women would have to vote."

While Smith captures Rankin's charismatic, resolute personality, she also notes that Rankin's temper and tendency to be stubborn left her feeling isolated and friendless.

Working on issues that ranged from poverty, low-income housing, factory conditions and health care, to suffrage and pacifism, Jeannette Rankin never gave up. In 1968, she led 5,000 women in a protest against the Vietnam War. And at the age of 88, when she was fighting for electoral reform and offered a chair because of her age, she replied, "No thanks, I fight better standing up."
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