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Chapter 1 of One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story
“We are unarmed and not at all threatening”
By Kevin S. Giles © 2017
It wasn’t a convenient morning. Snow had fallen overnight, filling the streets surrounding the United States Capitol with slush and mud. Several thousand women wearing boots and overcoats gathered around an old woman in the gray light outside Union Station. She stood shivering, hardly resembling a historical figure, at first appearing long past her prime. Eyeglasses loomed over her wrinkled face. The old woman watched the milling crowd while organizers called activists into place, state by state, and handed them protest banners. They would march on the Capitol to protest the war in Vietnam. They would decry the slaughter of young men, profiteering by corporations with fat defense contracts, congressional neglect of social and economic needs at home. They would take to the streets to beseech their government to listen to their grievances. They wanted change. They wanted peace. It all seemed hauntingly familiar to this diminutive octogenarian named Jeannette Rankin.
Half an hour before noon, the procession filed silently onto Louisiana Avenue. Rankin, standing all but a whisper past five feet tall in overshoes, walked at the middle of a banner that stretched thirty feet wide. “End the War in Vietnam and the Social Crisis at Home!” it commanded. Holding one end was Coretta Scott King, spouse of the crusading Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader who just weeks earlier had announced plans for a massive Poor People’s Campaign in the very streets where Rankin and nearly ten thousand other women now walked. Police estimated five thousand. They were notoriously bad at counting participants at public demonstrations. Surely it was ten thousand, Rankin surmised, because the procession stretched for several city blocks. She had some impressive experience with protests long before almost everyone walking with her. She knew a crowd when she saw it.
It was January 15, 1968, the opening day of the second session of the 90th Congress. President Lyndon Johnson enjoyed Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House but national unity evident in those first weeks after the Christmas holidays soon would fade. Despite the president’s “Great Society” domestic accomplishments with Head Start and Medicare and his leadership in civil rights, Democrats backed away in increasing numbers from his enthusiasm for United States military intervention in Vietnam. The war and its companion difficulties in the streets of America would figure strongly into Johnson’s decision to leave the presidency when his term ended later in the year.
That day in Washington would replay dramatic scenes in Jeannette Rankin’s mind. In the back pages of her memory she heard legions of feet shuffling, thousands of women’s voices calling for the right to vote. In those rustling calendar pages of time she would remember exuberant soldiers and somber protests and stern faces in Congress. She would reflect on a lifetime of passion for peace. That day at Union Station came nearly fifty-one years after Rankin’s first vote in Congress against war with Germany and more than twenty-six years after her landmark vote against war with Japan. Now, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade was taking the first step into one of the most tumultuous years in American history. A national protest in Rankin’s name was of no little significance even if many Americans didn’t remember her. History isn’t especially fond of dissenters, often perceived as agitators, but Rankin had earned her reputation as one of the Twentieth Century’s most notable women.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
That year, 1968, would become memorable for its fashion chaos as go-go boots, bell bottom trousers, miniskirts and peasant dresses appeared everywhere. Peace signs, love-ins and psychedelic rock already ruled university campuses from Berkley to Columbia and counterculture meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Flower children blossomed on street corners coast to coast after the Summer of Love. The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, would manage a musical comeback after making low-budget movies for seven years. The innovative television news magazine, 60 Minutes, would redefine broadcast journalism. The Beatles would begin their final round of chart-topping songs with Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude, a sad premonition of their band’s dissolution as much as John Lennon’s failing marriage and his son Julian being caught in the middle. One of the most memorable statements in popular culture, “Book ‘em, Dano,” would be introduced into American living rooms on color television. Hippies challenged Establishment America, while “Love It or Leave It” became the siren slogan for conservative Americans distressed over their crumbling conventional way of life.
Even as many of the nation’s youth proclaimed Free Love and rocked to the psychedelic Doors and Jefferson Airplane and other signature bands rooted in the drug culture, 1968 would be remembered more for its history-altering tragedies. Three months after the march of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a white supremacist would shoot and kill Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stood on a Memphis motel balcony. The nation’s cities, already edgy over racial strife, would erupt in flames and violence. More dreams of peace would wilt on a hotel kitchen floor after presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s assassination by a Palestinian Arab, Sirhan Sirhan, angry over Kennedy’s support for Israel. A generation would reel in despair.
Republicans would nominate Richard Nixon, a moody and vengeful California conservative and President Eisenhower’s vice president, as their presidential candidate at the Miami convention. The Democratic convention in Chicago would turn violent when police and protesters clashed in a nearby park, supplying vivid images of bloody beatings for the nation’s television audiences. Hubert H. Humphrey, a Minnesota liberal and Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, would emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee. In the South, voter support would grow for segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox. To the political left, minority militants such as Black Panthers, Chicano Brown Berets and the American Indian Movement would emerge. Students would seize five buildings at Columbia University for two months, showing in their “Strawberry Statement” how campuses could become centers for political protest. In a prologue to the eventual darkest chapter in presidential history known as Watergate, Nixon would ascend to the Oval Office after a razor-thin victory over Humphrey in November.
The backdrop to 1968, good and bad, was the cursed, deepening Vietnam conflict, not even recognized formally as a war. The mammoth surprise assault on American troops, known as the Tet Offensive, would impress on people back home the true misery of a little-understood Asian culture. The United States would lose its 10,000th helicopter in Vietnam. Coincidentally, an identical number of American troops would fall in combat that year. By year’s end, United States troop presence in Southeast Asia would exceed half a million. More than 300,000 men would be drafted into the military in 1968, the peak year of the buildup. Many Americans were denouncing the military’s demands for more troops to throw into the maw of Vietnam, where a jungle war supposedly would arrest the spread of communism.
The United States was fractured in 1968 and about to get worse. A resurgent Republican conservatism would challenge Democratic dominance. To the other extreme, legions of college kids embraced “message” musicians like protest-singer Country Joe MacDonald who mocked Middle America’s baleful reluctance to view war as a grim horror with his lyrics, Be the first one on your block/To have your boy come home in a box. Vietnam had become a killing field for American boys. More than 11,000 died in 1967, the highest body count yet in the undeclared war. The bloodshed inspired a flurry of correspondence to Jeannette Rankin from young Americans anxious for activism to oppose the war. One letter that year came from Linda Goodman, a nineteen-year-old student at Stanford University in California. “I have come to believe now that perhaps the only way to stop the war in Viet Nam would be to have large masses of women act out against it,” Goodman wrote Rankin. “I am frightened by the war, and all wars, and at the brutality and insensitivity which I see it breeding.”
For twenty-six years after Jeannette Rankin’s second term in the US House of Representatives had ended, she disappeared from the American peace movement, preferring to occupy herself with world travels and quiet summers at her family’s Avalanche Ranch in Montana. Public knowledge of the once-legendary Rankin, a hero to many people in her younger years but vilified by others as a traitor, had shriveled to a footnote in passing time. Many Americans had forgotten her. On the day that she joined thousands of like-minded women marching to the Capitol, the confluence of old guard First Wave suffragists and contemporary Second Wave feminists gave her a pulpit to revive her reputation. She was, again, a public figure.
Her comeback started inauspiciously enough. In May 1967, a Georgia pacifist and civil rights activist named Nan Pendergrast invited Rankin to Atlanta to speak about Vietnam to members of Atlantans for Peace. Pendergrast and Rankin were longtime friends and shared strong opinions against war. Many times Rankin stayed with Nan and her husband Britt, a conscientious objector during World War II, while visiting in Atlanta.
Rankin hadn’t delivered a speech on peace for at least twenty-five years. Pendergrast was intimately familiar with Rankin’s long history of pacifism and persuaded her friend to share her views on war and peace. That night, for a meeting at her house involving about twenty disciples of Atlantans for Peace, Nan invited an Associated Press reporter to visit with Rankin. Never short of drama, Rankin told the reporter she had read in a newspaper that very morning that 10,000 American men had died since the war began. Whether she knew how substantially that number would grow in the final months of 1967 remains a matter of speculation, but she clearly was alarmed at mounting casualties. Rankin told the reporter that if 10,000 women were prepared to march in memory of those dead men, they could stop the war. Women should commit to acts of civil disobedience and even jail, she said, showing her immersion in the teachings of pacifists Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau in the years she had been out of the public eye. “The time has passed for us to be nice. The army isn’t polite when it selects a young man and says, ‘Come on and fight,’” she said.
That night, Associated Press distributed the story on its national wire. Rankin’s pithy statement became an overnight sensation. “It must have been a slow news day,” Pendergrast would relate years later. “Suddenly she was all over the newspapers nationally.” It appeared that many people remembered Jeannette Rankin after all. Illustrative of responses to the story was one from Edith Newly of New Mexico, who wrote Rankin to thank her “for being the courageous American, the magnificent woman you are. That you go on in spite of the past is in itself stupendous bravery.”
Rankin received hundreds of similar letters. Struck by her antiwar comments and seeking leadership as news about Vietnam crowded the headlines, women across the country began to rally around her. Rankin tried to answer every letter, including one from Betty Meredith, who ran a nursery school for twenty-eight children in her house in a San Francisco suburb. Meredith had read Rankin’s comments in the morning Chronicle and, stirred by the old suffragist’s passion, showed the story to her friend Vivian Hallinan.
Protesters came and went in the 1960s, their numbers swelling and deflating as causes rose and fell, but Hallinan was no ordinary dissenter. She was a rich and persistent benefactor of liberal causes, drawing from a fortune she had accrued buying and selling apartment buildings during the Great Depression. She also had practical protest experience, having been sent to jail for participating in a civil rights demonstration in 1964. Hallinan was the elegant matriarch of a legendary and radical San Francisco family. Her husband was socialist attorney Vincent Hallinan, a 1952 presidential candidate on the Progressive ticket. Neither of the Hallinans was short of audacity when it came to funding political causes.
After Vivian read Rankin’s story, she boarded a plane for Georgia. Some hours later, she found Rankin awaiting her at the airport in Atlanta. They made a contrasting pair, as Ramparts magazine later described them: the striking young California activist and socialite, dressed in a camel-colored zipper suit, fishnet stockings and an orange sweater; the spunky octogenarian wearing oversized glasses and a mundane dress that most respectfully could be described as stylishly earth-toned. As they bounced along for sixty miles on the Georgia countryside — Rankin squeezing the gas pedal of her Chevrolet to the floorboard with a high-heeled shoe, it was reported — Hallinan asked whether Rankin would allow 10,000 women to march on the United States Capitol in her name. They would be known as the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
Being a longtime pacifist, Rankin found the military term “brigade” distasteful. For eighty years she had disliked everything about war, including words used to describe it, but in the new course of events she considered the objection insignificant. She didn’t want to organize the march or recruit women because she had buried that brand of activism in her past. Hallinan assured her that other women would manage the details. Rankin would lend her name and help the coalition plan logistics. By the time Rankin braked her car to a stop outside the patched-up sharecropper’s shanty she called home, she had agreed to participate in such a march. “She really did feel like she was beginning her life all over again,” Nan Pendergrast would recall of that moment as Rankin confided it to her.
From the beginning, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade had deep roots in Women Strike for Peace, a national mass movement that began in 1961 to ban nuclear weapons. By the fall of 1967, members of the potent antiwar coalition began meeting almost daily to organize the brigade and a second action, a Congress of American Women, that would be held after the march to put “woman power” on display. More than a figurehead, Rankin was in the middle of the planning, even traveling to New York to participate in strategy sessions. Women Strike for Peace, of which Hallinan was a member, quickly backed away from Rankin’s initial suggestions of civil disobedience and jail. Their notion was to recruit large numbers of church women to the brigade. These women, more conservative overall but increasingly vocal about their desire for peace, would unite forces with African American leaders and Second Wave feminists in 1968 to campaign against members of Congress who supported the war. The popular front that resulted, driven by feminist Ann Bennett and supported by acclaimed black civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Fanny Lou Hamer, would converge peace and poverty into a single cause and bridge racial and social classes of people.
For Jeannette Rankin, appealing for peace in Washington, DC, amounted to more than a protest of war. It would be symbolic of her life since she had joined the suffrage campaigns in 1910. Improving the welfare of women had been, to her, the all-inclusive reform that would establish government programs for mothers and children, help secure a more judicious manner of electing a president, clean up decadent social conditions and most of all, stop wars.
In 1918, Rankin had read The Science of Power, a book by British sociologist Benjamin Kidd. It fortified her belief that men wouldn’t end war if women didn’t make them do it. The book had become her peace bible. Rankin talked about the book, decades after her first reading of it, on national television talk shows. She carried a worn copy that she mailed to anyone who volunteered to read it.
Just as Rankin had learned from Gandhi and Nehru in her journeys to India that uncompromising support of women was essential to peace, Kidd awoke her to the philosophical differences between men and women on issues of war. To him, men were eternal aggressors, dueling like gladiators because of their obsession with material goods. This is what Kidd called force. He saw women as eternal procreators, looking after quality of life. This is what he called power.
Coincidentally, Kidd’s theories paralleled the structures of Rankin’s family. Her father, John Rankin, had stood for land, money and pride. He built his reputation and fortune as an influential community leader in frontier western Montana. Her mother, Olive Rankin, shaped her life around her seven children. The family lived far westward from the excesses of the Gilded Age, when a wave of wealth for some and poverty for many grew out of the post-Civil War industrial economy. Behind the curtain of national prosperity hid the omnipresent threat of war and other maladies Jeannette would come to hate, such as child labor and legal discrimination against women. Olive Rankin would not appear to lend much influence to Jeannette’s political beliefs, but in outliving her husband by more than forty years, she would represent the maternal influence of which Kidd spoke. John Rankin impressed on Jeannette his gift for rugged individualism.
Rankin had made The Science of Power her workbook for involving women in the peace movement. Kidd wrote that women had the power to develop what he called the emotion of an ideal. This meant they could pursue an idea because they had a stirring love for it. Kidd concluded that a woman “is the creature to whom the race is more than the individual, the being to whom the future is greater than the present.”
From Kidd’s writings and Gandhi’s teachings, Rankin shaped her pacifist philosophy about the future of world civilization, believing women who carried children in their bellies for nine months had more concern for their welfare than men, whom she saw as being forever preoccupied with combat. Rankin’s ideas about force and power surfaced anew in 1967 when war again gripped the United States — and more evidence emerged that it wasn’t going well. At age seventy-seven, the pacifist Gandhi had been walking to villages and townships to share his vision of civil disobedience. Rankin, at eighty-seven, decided she could perform a similar feat, even if more symbolic.
Throughout Rankin’s long and often stormy life, critics accused her of pursuing a fairy tale in thinking that women could, or would, stop war. Rankin held fast to her belief that women had been frightened into silence by the “war habit,” as she called it. To her, Americans had fallen to a mistaken belief that war was a patriotic obligation. To her, that belief was cemented in all strata of society.
In 1968, as opposition to the war in Vietnam mounted, Rankin stuck to her faith that women would lead the peace movement just as they had fought for their right to vote by federal amendment and finally won it in 1920. She had suffered many doses of bad luck in her campaigns to persuade women to quiet the motors of war. Many people ridiculed her as a bombastic tool of insurgents. They judged her quest for peace as political heresy in a land birthed from violent revolution. Conversely, many other Americans applauded her courage and vision. They saw her as a leader far ahead of the times, proposing ideas that seemed enduringly prudent but politically premature. As with any controversial figure in history, self-doubt tormented Rankin more than most anyone knew. After the Korean Conflict she had suffered bouts of depression, confiding to close friend and writer Katharine Anthony that despite a lifetime of effort she had failed to rally women against war. “I am not going to allow you to say that you are a futile person,” Anthony shot back. “That just isn’t true. And you mustn’t ever say it again. With all that you have accomplished in life you should never let such a thought enter your mind.”
By 1968, principles and causes Rankin had embraced since before World War I were accepted to a great degree across the United States. Numerous federal and state laws had been enacted to protect workers and prohibit forced labor of children. Women had won the right to vote. More Americans understood that wars didn’t come without a price paid in blood. Anger against the Vietnam conflict had stirred protests in cities nationwide. It was the kind of street-level protesting that Rankin had known from her early days in New York when she worked for social and political reform. Many so-called radical reforms were widely accepted if not widely tolerated. A notable exception was Rankin’s quest to outlaw war. Throughout the decades, reasons given for United States intervention in foreign conflict echoed those of previous wars. On that point, Rankin hammered away that wars unfailingly produced predictable miserable results. She hadn’t stood alone in her determination for permanent peace but to her, eight decades into her life, time was running out. In her single-minded effort to fight her private war against international war, she sometimes seemingly contradicted her own beliefs to make a point. Just why she voted in 1964 for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater wasn’t clear to anyone who knew her. The Arizona senator was a noted war hawk and social conservative, an authentic antithesis to the longtime peace dove, but she liked him because he condemned US policy in Vietnam during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
The massive peace movement that Rankin coveted grew daily after President Johnson in 1966 increased American military troops in Vietnam to 375,000. Revelations abounded. Explosives dropped on North Vietnam eventually would quadruple the bomb tonnage rained on Germany and Japan during World War II. American taxpayers were paying twenty-five billion dollars a year for human destruction, reported graphically in newspapers and magazines: Vietnamese children scarred by napalm, appalling death tolls in firefights, machine gunning civilian peasants, killing American soldiers by their own misdirected “friendly fire,” and even exploitation of Vietnamese coastal waters by Standard Oil and other conglomerates.
As Vietnam’s casualty figures sailed upward, voices of female protest grew louder. By 1967, more American women than ever demanded an end to the war. The massive “March to the Pentagon” in October reflected the growing national dissent, as did a series of anti-draft demonstrations in December. Rankin had denounced war for decades but she hadn’t persuaded enough people to stop it. She was an icon of pacifism during two world wars, a hero to many and a reprehensible traitor to others, but now thousands of activist women promised to join her in peaceful protest. Two voices were stronger than one, three stronger than two. To Rankin’s delight, the march in Washington would satisfy Kidd’s ideal of women using their power to secure their destinies. Growing discontent over Vietnam had made people eager for leaders. Rankin rode its crest to national prominence. She would become significant national news for the third time.
That very morning of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, all over the country, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents began dispatching alerts to J. Edgar Hoover’s office concerning alleged subversive activity. Any talk of dissent worried Hoover, and the attention he paid to Rankin suggested fear of her message and the merging of the peace and civil rights movements. Censors would black out substantial portions of memos containing apparent intelligence-gathering into the Rankin Brigade’s activities. Information came from “sensitive sources,” the FBI said, “the compromise of which would be detrimental to the U.S.”
Agents were dutiful in watching the makings of the protest. In Philadelphia on the morning of January 15, they reported that dozens of “white, middle-aged women” wearing Women Strike for Peace buttons boarded three cars of The Congressional train bound for Washington, DC. From New York, 1,400 more came on a charter train for a roundtrip fare of $7.50 each. In St. Louis, marchers of “the white race” circled the county courthouse. One of the women carried a sign that read, “Jeannette Rankin Brigade Stop the War in Vietnam,” in support of the larger demonstration in Washington. One woman brought two small children. “At one time two negro males observed the marchers and joined them,” the agent wrote. “After about five or ten minutes they apparently learned what the demonstration was about and left.” In San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and Phoenix, agents dutifully counted and observed protests planned in coordination of the large march in the nation’s capital.
In a bizarre bit of irony that day, several activist women from California watched a movie, Panic in the Streets, on their transcontinental flight. The movie portrayed a villain who had built a nuclear bomb in the basement of a house in Los Angeles. In the words of Marion Beardsley, representing Women Strike for Peace: “The intrepid FBI scurried around everywhere including some swanky swimming pools with babes in bikinis lying around,” until finally the hero found the bomb and hauled it to the ocean and dumped from a helicopter where “it went up in a mushroom cloud of glory.” Wrote Beardsley, who made the journey to join the Rankin Brigade with leaders from several women’s organizations: “It struck me that moving a bomb might be a lot simpler and easier than moving some of the minds in Washington.”
Hoover’s FBI viewed the brigade as a public safety threat, linked to communists in a fantasy of true Hoover fashion. “The brigade has been founded as a response to a statement made by former Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin to the effect that if large numbers of women protested the war and were arrested, it would bring the war machine to a halt in this country,” the Seattle office wrote Hoover. The memo also linked the Jeannette Rankin Brigade with groups such as Women Strike for Peace, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Seattle Women Act for Peace. Also under scrutiny were the publications People’s World and the National Guardian, both of which the FBI surmised were communist.
Given the FBI’s responsibility “to identify subversive elements,” field agents were ordered to begin investigations of the old woman who would lead the march. Jeannette Rankin’s pacifist history was noted, as were her congressional votes against two world wars. “She has stated that she is willing to stay in jail until the bombing in Vietnam is stopped,” according to FBI records.
The FBI then dictated how it would canvass the Jeannette Rankin Brigade: Identities of participants, known subversives, would be sent to Hoover’s office first by teletype and then by full memorandum. Each field office would document who was financing groups in the march. Special attention would be paid to Rankin and anyone else sponsoring the brigade. The People’s World newspaper reported many of those sponsors: Jane Cheney Spock, wife of the famous pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock; the legendary Rosa Parks from the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott; authors Jessica Mitford, Susan Sontag and Kay Boyle; Coretta Scott King representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; actress Ruby Dee, known best for the film, A Raisin in the Sun, and Julie Belafonte, spouse of Caribbean singer Harry Belafonte. The story also quoted Rankin: “This is no time to be polite. The army isn’t polite when it selects a young man and says, ‘come and fight.’ They don’t take the politicians and decision-makers to fight.” The march was timed to coordinate with the opening day of Congress.
That winter day in the nation’s capital, Swedish film actress Viveca Lindfors would read a petition explaining that women marching in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade represented millions of people opposed to the war and suffering from neglect of human needs in the United States. Marchers had attended a briefing the evening before they took to the streets. They were told that the presence of such a large group of protesters would violate Section 193 (g) of title 40 of federal law, which read: “It is forbidden to parade, stand, or move in processions of assemblages in said United States Capitol Grounds….” The evening before the march, radical feminists began agitating for civil disobedience confrontations that in their estimation would leave a stronger impression than women fulfilling expectations by abiding by rules and laws governing marches on the Capitol. To many people, the rift that resulted would become more memorable than the march itself.
Rankin and other march leaders thought the federal law violated the First Amendment’s pledge that said: “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” They had gone to court six days before the march to seek an injunction against the law but failed, forcing them to assemble at Union Station rather than on Capitol grounds. Police appeared in large numbers.
The procession stepped softly into the snow to begin the half-mile march up Louisiana Avenue. As many as ten thousand women dressed in mourning black, carrying placards and banners imploring Congress to end the war in Vietnam, tromped silently. Their sometimes vocal, sometimes silent, procession extended for several city blocks. Hundreds of police officers stared from the sidewalks.
Despite disagreements from the start, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade transcended race, age and wealth. White-skinned women linked arms with black-skinned, red-skinned with yellow, some eyes brimming with anticipation, others showing tears. White-haired grandmothers shared the street with chic suburban housewives and teenage hippies. Youngsters strapped papoose-style to their mothers eyed the cavalcade with bewilderment. Celebrities mingled in the crowd. Mothers of men already killed in Vietnam walked stonily. Two marchers were World War II “Red Cross girls” who told the Washington Post they had witnessed war and wanted no more of it. Another marcher was Mabel Vernon, who had “worked for peace since 1917.” Activists of national repute, like Rankin, closed ranks as they pressed forward. At times the march resembled a political convention as delegations raised their state banners. Many of the women wore lapel buttons. Some were tiny plastic doves. Other labels read, “Bring the Boys Home” and “End the War.” Many women wore campaign buttons supporting Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar candidate for president. To Jeannette Rankin, the scene would look hauntingly familiar, similar in so many ways to the great suffrage demonstrations in the years preceding World War I.
At the forefront of this river of women, undaunted, was Rankin, the wily veteran of protest. She fixed her bespectacled eyes calmly on the Capitol dome and pushed ahead, invigorated with her excitement over taking to the streets. Her winter coat concealed barely a hundred pounds of body, shriveled from time. A brown wig covered what was left of the crisp white hair that marked the lonely dissenter during the World War II Congress. She didn’t look the same but she was a symbol, an inspiration, for all the younger women surrounding her. Rankin looked to her left and to her right. The women closed around her, all of them matching her pace as they approached the Capitol dome. Rankin’s black-gloved hands, gnarled as they were, gripped the banner as if she was embracing a lifetime of pacifism.
Historically, Rankin had walked a long way. Many of her parade companions hadn’t been born even by the time of the second vote; few were alive at the time of the first. Other women looked at Rankin with astonishment, as she did at them. How could she explain to them her experiences of fully half a century? Lonely vigils to distribute suffrage literature on street corners? Arguments on Capitol Hill over war profiteering? Allegations of communism from the American Legion, boos and hisses from the House of Representatives gallery at a vote cast against war, her thrill at hearing Hindu villagers talk of their love for the peace-seeking Gandhi? To Jeannette Rankin all of these experiences meant a lifetime commitment to peace. A street march through wet snow by women dressed in black represented a new wave of activism. To Rankin, those women embodied the promise of a world free from war.
As the Jeannette Rankin Brigade swept toward the Capitol, a young police officer scooted into the front line. He gripped Rankin’s arm, presuming to escort her, but she shook free. “Do you think this frail old woman isn’t capable of good behavior on the Capitol grounds?” she asked him.
“She can walk. You don’t need to help her!” someone shouted.
The officer, uncertain now, flashed a smile. “Don’t deprive me of that pleasure,” he said.
Offended, Rankin lashed out: “You don’t need to worry about us. We are unarmed and not at all threatening.”
Lyndon Johnson, knowing the war had become his worst political nightmare, feared war protests. Bad news from Vietnam kept the big Texan awake at night. The women knew that the large police force would jail them if they tried to break the law. Detention centers had been prepared to imprison five hundred of the demonstrators; a cordon of police was ready for mass arrest. Standing at the foot of the Capitol, shivering in the raw wind, Rankin again asked why so many people were needed to threaten people exercising their democratic rights: “There is no reason why old ladies should be denied the right to go into the Capitol and have policemen on every corner to see that we don’t hurt you.”
Rankin and other march organizers had hoped to lead the full procession to the Capitol steps to present their petitions to House Speaker John McCormack. The 1882 law that prohibited mass demonstrations on Capitol grounds disrupted their plan, even if it seemed a clear contradiction to the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. At the Capitol, Rankin and sixteen demonstrators, including Coretta Scott King, broke away from the main body. Reporters and photographers, watching their ascent to the Capitol, huddled deeper in their overcoats. As the remainder of the brigade moved to Union Square near the Ulysses Grant memorial, where Judy Collins sang This Land is Your Land, Rankin and her delegation found McCormack and presented him with a petition that read:
“We, the United States women, who are outraged by the ruthless slaughter in Vietnam, and the persistent neglect of human needs at home, have come to Washington to petition the Congress for the redress of intolerable grievances, to demand that:
“Congress, as its first order of business, resolve to end the war in Vietnam and immediately arrange for the withdrawal of American troops.
“Congress use its power to heal a sick society at home.
“Congress use its power to make reparation for the ravaged land we leave behind in Vietnam.
“Congress listen to what the American people are saying and refuse the insatiable demands of the military-industrial complex.”
McCormack wasn’t sympathetic but he promised to refer the petition to the appropriate House committee. He did, and it became known as Petition 219. Representative William Fitts Ryan, a Democrat from New York and an early opponent of the war, introduced the petition in the House three days later.
After Rankin talked with McCormack she turned her attention to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. He was a powerhouse in Congress, known for plain talk as much as his extraordinary leadership. Mansfield began his congressional career in 1943 when Rankin retired after one term and he was elected to her House seat from the western district of Montana. Like Rankin, he opposed the war in Vietnam. History would show that he privately told a succession of presidents that fighting in Vietnam was wrong and futile.
As the women outside sang We Shall Overcome, the gracious Mansfield tried to woo Rankin with a silver tea set. Thinking his hospitality was a gimmick to distract from the urgency of the peace protest, Rankin talked quickly, not giving him a chance to offer her a cup.
“We must bring the boys home from Vietnam,” she told the lanky granite-faced senator.
“How are we going to do this?” he reportedly asked her.
“The same way we got them there. By planes and ships,” she replied. When she left Mansfield’s office, news reporters rushed her. What did the first woman elected to Congress more than fifty years earlier have to say about the most powerful man in Congress in 1968?
“He was very pleasant,” Rankin told them. “You know how politicians are.”