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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

January 11, 2022: Women in Politics: Jeannette Rankin’s Pacifism

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Caraway and a handful of other political women—share your thoughts and your own nominees for an egalitarian crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On the historical women who would especially appreciate a wondrous one.

I wasn’t quite as enamored of Wonder Woman (2017) as most viewers—this post isn’t part of a non-favorite series, so I won’t go into all those details, but overall I would say it was a pretty conventional superhero origin story, if with of course an important gender reversal. But one thing that did really affect and impress me about the film was its emphasis on philosophical and historical pacifism. The entire reason Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves her island paradise in the first place is because she learns about the ongoing horrors of the Great War and becomes determined to stop them; granted she does so because she believes correctly that her people’s longstanding enemy Ares the God of War has returned and is behind the war (this is a comic book superhero film, after all), but it’s perfectly easy and appropriate to see that character as also a metaphor for the forces that drive nations to war and of its accompanying horrors and destructions. In any case, Wonder Woman’s central motivation and goal is profoundly pacifist, no small thing in a blockbuster action film.

No small historical thing either, of course, but in that sense Wonder Woman is part of a large and existing community and historical trend: the link between women’s rights activists and anti-war efforts. Forgive me for quoting myself, but these two paragraphs from this prior post on anti-war suffrage activists highlight these historical women who I’m pretty sure would be first in line to support this film:

“Such dismissals of anti-war protesters were nothing new in American society, of course. Whereas the Vietnam War became so broadly unpopular that its anti-war movement garnered as much support as it did critique (although the aforementioned stereotyping of the protesters still occurred to be sure), the World War II and World War I anti-war movements were far more nationally unpopular and subject to the same kind of attacks. During both wars, many of the most prominent pacificists, both in America and around the world, were also women’s rights activists; a trend exemplified by Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who opposed both world wars and who represented the sole Congressional “no” vote against declaring war on Japan on December 8th, 1941. Rankin’s political career survived her World War I pacifism, but her opposition to World War II proved not only politically costly but personally destructive, both in media coverage and in threats on her life. (She did not run for reelection, but did live to lead an anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968!)

The virulent opposition to Rankin and her pacifist colleagues could be attributed solely to pro-war agitation and fever, and certainly that’s been a consistent part of such wartime historical moments and narratives. But I think it would also need to be analyzed in conjunction with the equally virulent and too-often forgotten opposition faced by suffragists and other women’s rights leaders. In that linked post I highlighted the shockingly nasty children’s book Ten Little Suffergets (c.1910), which offers a particularly vivid but far from isolated illustration (literally and figuratively) of such anti-women’s rights attitudes. If we have largely forgotten this kind of widespread anti-suffragist vitriol, one clear reason would be our collective recognition of just how fully those women’s rights activists were on the right side of history—a lesson that we perhaps have yet to learn when it comes to our anti-war movements, contemporary and historical.”

Next political woman tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?

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