Reflections on Jeannette Rankin as a native Montanan who made her mark in life


Mount Brown, Glacier National Park

Mount Brown catches the first high-school snow in Glacier National Park in October 2016. The park, atop Montana, speaks to romance in nature. Photo by Kevin S. Giles

By Kevin S. Giles

Montana, the fabled state of mind, is also a place for dreamers. What would we know of the world if we couldn’t see romance in the land and adventure in the sky? If Montana wasn’t far enough away to hold those people who take themselves too seriously at arm’s length, and wonder why?

Just why fate claimed a spot for any Montanan in the vast land that unfolds from the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ll never know. Or do we care. For native Montanans, and everyone else who came and stayed, it’s there, a place to dream, a murmur of the heart, a story to write.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot

 

At the beginning, Jeannette Rankin was nothing more than the rest of us. She awakened to Montana when it was no more than a territory, before the railroad and paved highways and unneighborly notions began carving the great land into sections. Like many Americans who rise to national fame, her dreaming came later in life, founded without debate in the rugged individualism of a fresh new western state.

The day would come when Jeannette Rankin would stand in Congress. Yes, the first woman elected to Congress — ushered into those halls of unctuous power by the mercy and vision of her fellow Montanans, men and women both. Sooner or later any state could have claimed the first woman elected to Congress but that honor fell to Montana. A state for dreamers, Montana.

Cedar trail in Glacier National Park

On the Trail of Cedars in Glacier National Park, nature’s paintbrush left a panorama of color. Photo by Kevin S. Giles

History is strangely silent in the search for any contempt in Montana that a woman would dare to campaign for national office. All the predictable arguments existed, yes, but Rankin overcame them one by one. Can’t have women voting in saloons? Move the polling places to public buildings. The influence of “political women” would threaten the home? Voting women could enact laws that protect the health and safety of families.

Rankin believed. Her mission in life would become clear soon after her election to Congress. She was a suffragist, believing in the voting power of women, and she opposed war. Then she melded the two ideas into a simple principle that women could, and should, use the ballot to stop war and work toward diplomatic solutions.

Her dream of pacifism, condemned by anyone who saw war as a necessary tool of international relations, never withered. Nor did she languish. She doubted herself, yes, but dreamers like Rankin stand by their dreams with bonds of steel.

The view from Montana’s tallest mountains, far-reaching as it may seem, finds only a small pocket of the map and leaves the rest to imagination. From those mountains, we dream. Jeannette Rankin, now long gone from the political life and even from life, is a remembered Montanan whose name is found in books and parks and libraries and often on the lips of anyone who understands her dream.

Wars continue with their predictable swaggering at the beginning and fatigue and grief at the end. In Montana, the wind feathers over the land like it did yesterday and will tomorrow, and the mountains haven’t moved and the sky stretches so far and wide that Montanans wrote a motto to commemorate their penchant for big ideas.

This was Jeannette Rankin’s Montana, and ours too, and we know instinctively that dreams know no boundaries.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author who sets his books in his native western Montana. He published “One Woman Against War” in October 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)

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