Because it’s Women’s History Month, I thought it would be fun and enlightening to ask some of my author friends the following question: Tell us about a woman from history that inspires you.
The first author to respond to the call is my dear friend Camille Griep, author of the forthcoming book, Letters to Zell. Camille will be telling us about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress, way back in 1916.
Gather round, kids. Because Jeanette Rankin’s story is kind of bad-ass.
When I was nine and living on the plains just east of Billings, Montana, my grade school class was asked to dress up as historical figures from the history of our home state. While there were myriad figures from the old west to choose from, I somehow drew the name of Jeanette Rankin. Putting aside my disappointment – I had so badly wanted to be Calamity Jane on the offhand I could ride my horse to school – I settled in to learn about all Rankin had done for girls like me and women like who I would one day become.
Though I didn’t have the ability or life experience to truly appreciate Rankin, yet, I was undergoing yet another piece of the puzzle that would later allow me to understand her more fully. That same year, a sliver of my generation would experience our first live media disaster, an indelible memory that would shape our ideas of hope, and blue sky, and danger. For us, the first time something went wrong before our eyes was the explosion of the Challenger, and especially the loss of the beloved teacher inside – who could have been any of the women in the front of the room, desperately trying to figure out if they should shut off the television or let us all watch in silent tears.
And so it was for Jeanette Rankin, born in Missoula Montana in 1880. An avid reader by the age of 11, she studied the newspaper, which had recently started arriving with coverage of the massacre at Wounded Knee. She read how the American soldiers, in a confused and chaotic mid-blizzard battle, shot down almost 300 Lakota. The soldiers shot children even as they approached the flag of surrender, even as women nursed their babies, even as survivors were called to show themselves. Then she read how the frozen corpses of the dead were interred in a mass grave. And she was inconsolable.
Seared into Jeanette’s memory – the deaths of fellow children and the senseless slaughter of a people Rankin had only had positive interactions with – these visions manifested themselves in a lifelong commitment to pacifism. Though Rankin will be remembered most for that pacifism – voting against entering World War I and against going to War with Japan in 1940 – she most wanted to be known for her suffrage work, saying in 1972, “I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
It was her work to get women the vote in Washington state and Montana, that eventually led her to her 1916 run for Congress. She campaigned all over the wide, sparsely populated state and won the seat, making her the first woman to be elected to the US Congress. To this, she famously said, “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” And she was right.
Not only did Rankin help pave the way for women’s suffrage nationwide, she also gave generations of young women in Montana a glimpse of what true leadership looked like. She turned down marriage proposals and fixed tractors, she made furniture and went to college. She stuck to her principles, even when it became clear the price she’d pay was her congressional seat, not once but twice.
Between her first and second terms in Congress, she worked tirelessly on behalf of women and children, in the arenas of welfare and child labor. After Pearl Harbor, her colleagues begged her to change her mind so that the vote for retaliation against Japan would be unanimous. She explained, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
Mobbed and chased from the floor of the house, she remained undaunted. Though she did not run for Congress again, she continued to work on behalf of women’s rights, social justice, and pacifism. At age 87, she led a demonstration of over 5000 people protesting the Vietnam War.
After voting against war with Japan, Rankin received a telegraph that stated, “You have disgraced the State of Montana all that you possibly can.” She never regretted her decision, and in doing so, made the way so much easier for other women to speak their minds in the coming decades, including me, a Montanan who would later be grateful she hadn’t disgraced herself, instead, by abandoning her principles, as unpopular as they were.
She’s an example of all of those who’ve been brave enough to risk their positions – and at times even safety – to ensure that all citizens have equal rights. Through her work, I am able to vote, to use birth control, to have autonomy, to speak my mind about war and peace. She made it possible for the women on the Challenger to be more than the husbands they left at home to make history beyond the blue sky above us. She spoke her mind and marched ahead, so that we could each test our own feet on land yet untrodden.
Jeanette Rankin reminds me to be proud of my home, proud of my womanhood, proud of my voice. She reminds me to never take that voice for granted. She reminds me there’s always work left to do.
She reminds me to be proud when I lift my voice to do it.
Camille Griep lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She is the managing editor of Easy Street and a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Her first novel, Letters to Zell, is forthcoming July 2015 from 47North.
About Letters to Zell:
Everything is going according to story for CeCi (Cinderella), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty)—until the day that Zell (Rapunzel) decides to leave Grimmland and pursue her life. Now, Zell’s best friends are left to wonder whether their own passions are worth risking their predetermined “happily ever afters,” regardless of the consequences. CeCi wonders whether she should become a professional chef, sharp-tongued and quick-witted Bianca wants to escape an engagement to her platonic friend, and Rory will do anything to make her boorish husband love her. But as Bianca’s wedding approaches, can they escape their fates—and is there enough wine in all of the Realm to help them? In this hilarious modern interpretation of the fairy-tale stories we all know and love, Letters to Zell explores what happens when women abandon the stories they didn’t write for themselves and go completely off script to follow their dreams.