On this day in 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming the first U.S. congresswoman. She represented Montana twice: from 1917-1919 and from 1941-1943. In Congress, Rankin was known for her pacifism. She was one of just 50 members of Congress to vote against entry into WWI in 1917, and the only Congressperson to oppose declaring war on Japan in 1941. This gave her the distinction of being the only person in Congress to vote against both world wars.
Rankin was a proponent of female participation in the government and the public sphere. This post will examine how Rankin advocated for this progressive cause by drawing on more conservative rhetoric: in particular, the argument of “Republican Motherhood.”
The phrase “Republican Motherhood” was developed in the late 20th century by historians to name a particular opinion about women’s roles that was influential from the colonial era through the early 20th century. It described the notion that motherhood was a civic duty, and that women’s primary responsibility was to impart ideals of republicanism onto the next generation. It imbued women’s work in the private sphere—childrearing, in particular—with meaning and significance to the nation, thereby rendering women’s political activism and work beyond the home superfluous.
Jeannette Rankin turned this ideal on its head. Women’s experiences as mothers, she upheld, did not mean that they should remain in the home. Rather, women’s experiences with motherhood should propel them to educate the world and publicly advocate for peace:
Rankin reasoned that because “killing is the antithesis of life and negates the very possibility of growing into fullness” it was this “same passion for the ideal, which a mother expresses in her love for her children, which we must achieve and maintain if we want our ideals to mature and flourish in society: self-control, compassion, honesty, integrity, and love must be conceived in our minds, incarnated through our daily actions and living, and patiently sustained in adversity. A dead enemy cannot become our friend. And—just as certainly—the ideal dies within us when we violate it.” With this she concluded that “the motherhood of the world must demand that destruction be stopped and the abundance distributed.” (1)
Rankin’s line of thought led her to a powerful conclusion: that “The peace problem is a woman’s problem. Disarmament will not be won without their aid… there is no other way that I can see in which peace can be realized except through forbearance from fighting on the part of men as well as women…Therefore peace is a woman’s job.” (2) Unlike the proponents of Republican Motherhood, who maintained that women were most needed in the home, Rankin declared that the motherly work of women was urgently demanded in the public world of politics and social activism.
(1) Rankin, “Why I Voted Against War,” p. 3, and “Women and Neutrality,” quoted in Joan Hoff Wilson, “Peace is a Woman’s Job…” Jeannette Rankin and the Origins American Foreign Policy: Of Her Pacifism, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 28-41.
(2) Rankin, “Peace and Disarmament Conference,” n.d., Box 3, Rankin Papers, quoted in Joan Hoff Wilson, “Peace is a Woman’s Job…” Jeannette Rankin and the Origins American Foreign Policy: Of Her Pacifism, Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 28-41.