She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain... By MADELINE DUCKLES

Special to the Planet
Friday March 25, 2005

Well, maybe not driving six white horses, but Jeannette Rankin of Montana will be coming to Berkeley in a performance of the play, A Single Woman, based on the words and the writings of this unique, pioneering woman. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to Congress in 1916, before universal women’s suffrage; she was a pacifist who voted against entry into World War I; then, gerrymandered out of office, she was re-elected in 1940, and was the lone vote against participation in World War II. She was much reviled for this, but she was a feisty woman and ably defended her decision. 

Born into a family of pioneers, Jeannette Rankin grew up on a farm outside Missoula, Montana, where she received her early education, followed by her A.B. from the University of Montana in Missoula. She was already much concerned with women’s right to vote, and this cause was furthered by her time in New York where she attended an institution called “New York School of Philanthropy.” 

By 1910 she was already working in campaigns for women’s suffrage in New York State, Washington, California and Montana. By 1913 12 states had granted women suffrage within their borders, and in 1914 Montana became the thirteenth state. Jannette Rankin participated in meetings, in marches and demonstrations—one march went from New York to Washington in time for Wilson’s inauguration. By this time Jeannette Rankin had developed confidence in public speaking and was eloquent in her persuasive reasoning. 

She became field secretary of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, but relinquished that position to run for Congress from Montana. She ran as an at-large candidate. It is said that she often campaigned on horseback, going to farms and into mines to talk with voters. Her program was original, not the result of a particular mentor or statesman, but ideas learned from her work with the suffrage movement and from her own common sense. She announced that her first issue would be women’s suffrage, to be followed by work for an eight-hour day for women, and for laws providing that women shall receive the same wages as men for equal amounts of work. She also declared her intention to seek extension of child labor laws, mothers’ pensions and universal education. 

(When the women’s movement had that great convention in Houston in l977 we thought we were so innovative in working for the Equal Rights Amendment but Jeannette Rankin had already been there. The ERA never did get passed by Congress.) 

As the only woman in Congress there was curiosity about “the lady from Montana,” but surprising little of that invasive press coverage of our present celebrity oriented media. A brief article in the New York Times of Nov. 12, l916 reads, “Miss Rankin is a very feminine woman, one young woman who had known her here, said yesterday. She dances well and makes her own hats and sews, and has won genuine fame among her friends with the wonderful lemon meringue pie that she makes when she hasn’t had enough other things to do to keep her busy”—so much for an in-depth scoop about her private life. She had admirers, but felt she had much too much to do to take time for marriage. 

Jeannette Rankin served only one term after she was elected to Congress the second time in l940. She continued her work for peace and justice and spoke forcefully against war in many venues. Her opposition to war was not based on emotionalism, but on sheer logic and common sense. She abhorred the stupidity of it. She once said, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” And she pointed out that, “War is nothing more that a method of settling a dispute, but it has nothing to do with the dispute. In fact, you never have the same issues at the end of the war that were present at the beginning.” 

She was active with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom with Jane Addams, she was a founder and vice-president of ACLU, and worked with refugees, immigrant women and minorities. She traveled to Turkey and India, South Africa and the Soviet Union, and moved to Athens, Georgia to work with the community there—and started a peace center in Athens. Still going strong in l968 she led a march of 5,000 women, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, to Washington to protest the Vietnam war. 

This great life is made immediate in the brilliant and inspiring play, A Single Woman, written and performed by Jeanmarie Simpson as Jeannette Rankin, with Cameron Crain as Everyman, the people Rankin encounters. Playwright Simpson, who used material from the UC Bancroft Library Oral History Project, says, “It is vital that people meet Jeannette Rankin, her words, her actions and her remarkable character.  

“The more people become involved, the more of an impact Jeannette’s voice can make on contemporary culture. Let’s face it. We need help in this country and in the world and we don’t have enough voices with the intellectual and moral clarity of Jeannette Rankin’s.”