David Allan: Jeannette Rankin may be the most deserving candidate for the $10 bill you've never heard of
Rankin was the first ever Congresswoman and the only member to vote against both World Wars
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
There are many women who have long ago earned the honor to be the first on an American bill, but perhaps the most deserving is a name you likely never heard of: Jeannette Rankin.
The fact that she was the first woman elected to Congress may be worthy of consideration in itself. But that’s not the most relevant milestone of this extraordinary woman’s career. She was also a leader in the effort to allow women the right to vote in America.
More controversially, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against entry into both World Wars – an historical footnote of Forrest Gump-esque serendipity. As she defined her lifelong opposition: “War is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies.”
Those votes and the rest of Rankin’s career represent the brave, progressive and independent thinking that should win her a ubiquitous place in our wallets. It’s also the reason it won’t.
The Treasury Department announced this summer that the new $10 bill will enter circulation in 2020, marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the federal right to vote.
Rankin was elected four years earlier than the amendment and is one of the few suffragists (whose goal was to secure that right) to actually hold national office. Even before she was elected, Rankin had a remarkable career as an activist and professional lobbyist, helping to ensure women the right to vote in Washington State in 1910 and Montana in 1914, where she was elected to Congress at age 35.
And once in office she opened the very first House floor debate on a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage. In other words, she was both a pioneer and successful agent for the very milestone the new $10 bill is honoring.
She was also, surprisingly, a Republican, though clearly the GOP has moved away from its progressive roots as she ran on a non-partisan platform of social welfare and a woman’s right to vote.
International events, however, immediately interfered with that agenda. Only four days after she was sworn in on April 2, 1917, Congress voted on whether to go to war with Germany. She voted her conscience, joining 49 others against the war resolution. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she said as she cast her vote.
Fellow suffragists tried to dissuade her, worried the vote would hurt their cause. And the Helena Independent newspaper in her home state referred to her as “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists” and “a dupe of the Kaiser.” When her at-large Congressional seat was eliminated by state gerrymandering a year later and the GOP locked her out of the party, Rankin ran for Senate as an independent and lost.
She kept busy for the next two decades, mostly organizing anti-war groups and lobbying Congress to pass social welfare legislation, such as a constitutional amendment banning child labor and a law to reduce maternal and infant mortality, which she herself introduced while in office. But with war looming again in Europe in 1940 she was moved to run again, and won again.
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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor eroded any anti-war support she may have had in Congress. In the roll call vote for a war resolution the day after the attack, Rankin was lonely in her conviction. She argued against entering World War II among hisses and boos and the condemnation was so intense she hid inside a telephone booth until she got a police escort to her office. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said on the floor, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” The final House vote was 388-1.
Many of her constituents felt as strongly that war was the only answer to the Japanese attack and the rising threat of Hitler, as she felt that violence only begets more violence. She decided not to seek reelection and spent the rest of her years fighting for social causes, against national aggression and traveling around the world, including to India to study Gandhian nonviolence (though the man himself was assassinated before she met him).
She led a rally to protest aggression in Vietnam at 86 years old and, according to her biography on the House of Representative website, “at the time of her death, on May 18, 1973…Rankin was considering another run for a House seat to protest the Vietnam War.” She was 93.
We need to have Jeanette Rankin on the new $10 bill because her story of courage, conviction and healthy, American, vital-for-democracy dissent is a story more people should know, and they will if the Treasury Department has the courage to make such a bold decision.