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Traitors to the Cause: Jeannette Rankin, Barbara Lee, and the Solo “No” Vote


Five decades, thousands of miles, and different political parties separated Jeannette Rankin and Barbara Lee from one another. Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress and the only person to vote against WWI and WWII policies, was a staunch pacifist who ran on a Republican ticket during her two nonconsecutive terms in the House. Lee, an experienced politician with a long career as a Democratic representative, continues to serve in the House today. However, they both share one key commonality: their votes against war-related policies were the only of their kind. Therefore the two were standing against a war hungry country and facing horrific public backlash. In Rankin’s case, this spelled the end of her political career. Conversely for Lee, it was just the beginning. Through her dissension and refusal to compromise her beliefs, Rankin laid the groundwork for Lee and others like her to vote against war-related policies despite the significant public disapproval and intense opposition.


Rankin voted against two key pieces of legislation: the vote to declare involvement in WWI and the declaration of war on Japan in 1941. She stood with 39 other representatives against the 1917 declaration of war on Germany, but in 1941, she stood alone. Rankin holds the distinction of being the first woman elected to Congress, winning in 1916 as Montana’s representative. Her focus when she arrived in office was not on re-election, but rather on reform, fighting for worker’s rights, social reform, and most importantly, suffrage. She worked with both the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and National Woman’s Party (NWP) as she tried to pass a federal amendment. In fact, she introduced the federal suffrage amendment to the House on the same day President Wilson gave his war speech advocating for the entrance of the United States into the raging international conflict. However, as WWI loomed, her strong pacifist views informed her votes, eventually voting against the declaration of war on Germany.


Representative Rankin lost her re-election bid due to partisan gerrymandering influenced by the copper industry, which she had attempted to regulate and reform during her time in Congress. She also spent time working with international peace organizations before recognizing the danger WWII presented to world peace. This time, she ran in Montana as an absolute pacifist with war politics as her platform, citing the philosophy of her contemporaries Jane Addams and Benjamin Kidd. Her campaign slogan read, “Prepare for the limit for defense; keep our men out of Europe.” Shortly after she won her election, she was faced with a crucial decision. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged Congress to declare war on Japan, she voted against it and was the only one to do so. She even broke protocol during voting to declare, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.” The public backlash was swift, immense, and aggressive. Some quotes stand out from the letters and telegrams she received,“When concentration camps open, you should be occupant #1,”[1] one man wrote. Another critic claimed, “You and that other petticoated idiot Perkins are as near the line of idiocy as possible. I hope a jap bomb lands on your head or home.”[2] One even wrote, “Benedict Arnold is a saint compared to you, traitor.”[3] In the end, Rankin’s political career was finished, and she continued to endure heavy criticism until her death in 1973.


Her legacy, however, lives on in other women who dare to stand up for their beliefs despite the personal and political cost they may yield. Barbara Lee is one of these women. Elected in 1998 to represent California in the House of Representatives, Lee was only three years into her term when the September 11, 2001, attacks took place. In the confusion, panic, and anger that emerged following that day, Congress drafted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). This policy essentially grants the President the power to take military action of any kind against any “nations, organizations, or persons he deemed authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks…” Lee viewed this as a free pass given to the President to declare war on whomever he or she chose, whenever he or she saw fit. Standing in staunch opposition to this, Lee cast her decisive vote against it. Unsurprisingly, public opposition was eerily similar to what Rankin experienced. In the twelve boxes of letters she received regarding the vote, some quotes stand out,“You do not stand alone in evil. You stand with Bin Laden and Hitler and Judas,” one asserted. Aggressively another wrote, “To the dishonorable Barbara Lee: You should strap yourself to the front of the first cruise missile launched.”[4]


Unlike Rankin however, Lee won re-election again and again, and still sits in Congress. Her continued political success is reflective of the change Rankin was able to create. Her bravery in the face of the death of her political career allowed the world to see that standing firmly by one’s beliefs was an accomplishable feat and shattered barriers for women in Congress. Today, as Congress grows more partisan and alienated from one another, more sole “no” votes will inevitably emerge, and those to who choose to dissent will invoke Rankin’s enduring legacy.

Bibliography

Ferris, Sarah. "'History Has Proven Her Right': Barbara Lee's Anti-war Push Succeeds on Iran."

Politico, 10 Jan. 2020, www.politico.com/news/2020/01/10/barbara-lee-war-iran-097145. Accessed 6 July 2021.

Friedersdorf, Connor. "Angry Letters to the One Member of Congress Who Voted Against the War on Terror." The Atlantic, 14 Sept. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/the-vindication-of-barbara-lee/380084/. Accessed 6 July 2021.

Giles, Kevin S. One Woman against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story. St. Petersburg,

BookLocker.com, 2016.

"Rankin, Jeannette." History, Art, & Archives: The United States House of Representatives, history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2019.

Sloan, R. S. Letter to Jeannette Rankin. 12 Dec. 1941. Papers of Jeannette Rankin, 1879-1976

(inclusive), 1916-1973 (bulk), Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge.

Smith, Joe G. Letter to Jeannette Rankin. 8 Dec. 1942. Papers of Jeannette Rankin, 1879-1976

(inclusive) , 1916-1973 (bulk), Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge.

Villard, Oswald Garrison. Letter. 17 Dec. 1940. Papers of Jeannette Rankin, 1879-1916

(inclusive), 1916-1973 (bulk), Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge.




[1] Villard, Oswald Garrison. Letter. 17 Dec. 1940. Papers of Jeannette Rankin, 1879-1916 (inclusive), 1916-1973 (bulk), Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge.

[2] Sloan, R. S. Letter to Jeannette Rankin. 12 Dec. 1941. Papers of Jeannette Rankin, 1879-1976

(inclusive), 1916-1973 (bulk), Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge.

[3] Smith, Joe G. Letter to Jeannette Rankin. 8 Dec. 1942. Papers of Jeannette Rankin, 1879-1976

(inclusive) , 1916-1973 (bulk), Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Cambridge.

[4] Friedersdorf, Connor. "Angry Letters to the One Member of Congress Who Voted Against the

War on Terror." The Atlantic, 14 Sept. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/the-vindication-of-barbara-lee/380084/. Accessed 6 July 2021.


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