(I wrote this as the foreword for Jeanmarie Bishop‘s new published play about Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. “Tens of thousands have seen the play in theatres, meeting halls and living rooms throughout the world,” Bishop writes.)
By Kevin S. Giles
It’s been said that to truly understand Jeannette Rankin requires practicing what drove her through a lifelong pursuit of pacifism. Otherwise we stare at her through a looking glass from afar, seeing eventful mileposts but never breathing the rarefied air of her innermost thoughts. Yes, Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She was the only American to vote against two world wars. She was widely vilified for doing that, but why?
Jeanmarie Bishop takes us into a deep character study of Rankin’s vision for peace in “A Single Woman,” a play that finds a beating heart in the body of politics. It’s a comprehensive construct that succinctly gives voice to Rankin’s yearnings for a world free from war. That’s because Jeanmarie isn’t simply another Rankin admirer, another idle passerby taking note of a compendium of history, but she writes passionately about what she knows. She practices pacifism herself and therefore finds common ground in Rankin’s anti-war convictions.
“War is big business,” Rankin says in Jeanmarie’s work, capturing the touchstone of the famous pacifist’s activism. Rankin served two terms in Congress, two decades apart, but in those ensuing years she haunted committee rooms at the U.S. Capitol to testify for peace. She took a political view of war, seizing every opportunity to implicate corporations that profited handsomely from international conflicts. Corporate war profiteering isn’t a pacifist’s preoccupation; rather, it’s a fact documented extensively in congressional hearings in the 1930s and in deep examinations of the Vietnam War. Rankin understood the economy behind national defense and Jeanmarie does too. Together they expose that shameful secret in “A Single Woman.”
I became acquainted with Jeanmarie somewhere around the turn of the millennium after she read Flight of the Dove, my biography of Rankin. We’ve commiserated and collaborated on our various works and share a communal appreciation for Rankin’s life and times. The first congresswoman was a national icon, yes, but hardly a figurehead. She never strayed from her pacifism, nor has Jeanmarie.
Without succinct reporting, attention to accuracy and a flair for the human spirit, any drama depicting Jeannette Rankin’s life would fall flat. Jeanmarie knows Rankin was so much more than a footnote to world wars and tells it so. History shows Rankin was possibly the only persistent 20th Century voice of protest against the inevitable: a nation predictably sleepwalking toward yet another war, discarding sorrowful lessons of the past as soon as another call to revived the nation’s thirst for combat.
“We’ll always have causes for disputes, but we don’t have to hit each other to settle them,” Rankin says in Jeanmarie’s work. “Anyway, what they call ‘causes of war’ are just lies. The real cause is that we have a culture based on a military system, and governments, in order to keep power, fight with arms and killing.”
As a nation we try too hard to explain away war, as if we’re embarrassed to admit we’re for peace. Jeannette Rankin, “A Single Woman,” tell us that it’s much simpler than we think.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. A new and expanded edition of his biography of Jeannette Rankin will be published in the fall of 2016. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)