Friday, November 6, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Jeannette Rankin's "I cannot vote for war"

A member of Congress and lifelong activist, Jeannette Rankin gave many speeches, on legislative issues, the rights of women to vote, and many more topics. But it is the shortest form of public speaking--two "no" votes in Congress--that are her most famous speeches, because with them, she became the only member of Congress to vote against United States participation in both World War I and World War II.

Rankin, representing Montana, also was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1916--four full years before women had the right to vote nationwide. Later, she could and did say that she was "the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote," a nice piece of rhetoric. But even before that, one of her first acts, just days after her swearing in, was to vote against the United States's entry into World War I. The House of Representatives's biography of Rankin describes that day, and the brief speech she made:
Rankin’s service began dramatically when Congress was called into an extraordinary April session after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all Atlantic shipping. On April 2, 1917, she arrived at the Capitol to be sworn in along with the other Members of the 65th Congress (1917–1919). Escorted by her Montana colleague, Rankin looked like “a mature bride rather than a strong-minded female,” an observer wrote, “… When her name was called the House cheered and rose, so that she had to rise and bow twice, which she did with entire self-possession.” 
That evening, Congress met in Joint Session to hear President Woodrow Wilson ask to “make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany. The House debated the war resolution on April 5th. Given Rankin’s strong pacifist views, she was inclined against war. Colleagues in the suffrage movement urged caution, fearing that a vote against war would tarnish the entire cause. Rankin sat out the debate over war, a decision she later regretted. She inadvertently violated House rules by making a brief speech when casting her vote. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she told the House. “I vote no.” The final vote was 374 for the war resolution and 50 against. The Helena Independent likened her to “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl”—even though Montana mail to Rankin’s office ran against U.S. intervention.
Her first term in Congress ended in 1919, and decades later, she ran again on the eve of World War II. In both her first and second campaigns, Rankin made no secret of her pacifist views. This time, she actively tried to join the debate in the House when the war resolution was proposed, but was prevented from speaking. She wound up the lone vote against the resolution. From the House biography:
Rankin was en route to Detroit on a speaking engagement when she heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. She returned to Washington the next morning, determined to oppose U.S. participation in the war. Immediately after President Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress, the House and Senate met to deliberate on a declaration of war. Rankin repeatedly tried to gain recognition once the first reading of the war resolution was completed in the House. In the brief debate on the resolution, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas refused to recognize her and declared her out of order. Other Members called for her to sit down. Others approached her on the House Floor, trying to convince her to either vote for the war or abstain. When the roll call vote was taken, Rankin voted “No” amid what the Associated Press described as “a chorus of hisses and boos.” Rankin went on to announce, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” The war resolution passed the House 388–1.
That second "no" vote came with a strong backlash, and the remainder of her term was deemed irrelevant because of it. What can you learn from these short but powerful speeches?
  • One voice can be powerful: A modern speaker, Malala Yousafzai, says, "When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful." Rankin certainly sensed that she'd be in the minority for these "no" votes, and made them, anyway, understanding that the record would have to show that some objection had been made. 
  • A vote is a voice: Many of the early campaigners for women's right to vote in the U.S. joined that campaign because they'd been forbidden to speak in public. They saw voting as a form of vocalizing, one with power. Rankin also held this view, and acted on it.
  • Seize your moment: She may have broken House rules by also saying "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war," but her words became part of the historic record of that moment and lend perspective we can use today to better understand what happened. Rankin regretted not having joined the debate, a good reminder to jump in the discussions before you.
At the time of her death at age 93 in 1973, Rankin was contemplating yet another run for Congress, to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

(Top photo courtesy Library of Congress, from the Records of the National Woman's Party. Rankin is pictured speaking on April 2, 1917--four days before Congress declared war on Germany--from the balcony of the Washington, DC, building that housed that National American Woman Suffrage Association. Second photo of Rankin giving her first full speech in Congress, courtesy of the Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration )

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