Jeanette Rankin, The Pearl Harbor Ethics Dunce

This post is a day late, I guess. A friend on Facebook posted the headline above, bringing the episode back to me.

Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973) is a feminist icon, and with good reason. She was the first woman to be elected to Congress (From Montana), even before women were  able to vote under the Constitution. [She also played a pivotal role in  the passing of the 19th Amendment, finally granting all women in the U.S. the right they should have had from the beginning. (Montana was one of the states that allowed full voting rights to woman before the 19th Amendment was passed.)

But Rankin voted against declaring war on Japan after its deadly sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the only member of Congress to do so. In her case, the fact that the only woman in Congress also was the sole opposition to war was no coincidence.

As a trailblazing feminist,Rankin believed that feminism was a natural ally of pacificism. She believed that having women in power instead of men would mean fewer wars, and  less violence. By today’s standards, I would call her a bigot, and that particular brand of bigotry still lurks under the surface of the modern feminist argument that more women should be elected to positions of power just because of the inherent virtue attached to having only x-chromosomes.

If anything, Rankin’s vote bolstered prejudices against female leaders. Hers was an irresponsible vote that put pure ideology over the best interests of the United States. Analyzed by Kantian standards, her reasoning led to an act that if followed by all as the ethical ideal, would have likely led to a Nazi-orchestrated calamity for the human race.

Linking such a truly ignorant and willfully obtuse decision to womanhood made doubts about women’s fitness to lead nations seem not only reasonable, but mandatory. If Rankin’s conceit that women were naturally averse to war and violence even when war and violence were unavoidable were accepted, why would anyone vote  a woman into Congress, much less the White House?

Rankin had a better argument when she voted against entering World War I. That vote still led to her being defeated for re-election, and becoming the sole dissenting vote after Pearl Harbor effectively ended her political career. Thus she not only cast a stupid vote, it was also a pointless and destructive one. She robbed Congress and the nation’s women of their sole female representation to grandstand in favor of an ideal that was especially ill-suited to reality at the moment in history, and she did so knowing that it would change nothing.

You can’t deny Rankin’s integrity, though. She didn’t run for election again when her term ended two years later, never apologized for her vote, and continued campaigning for peace. In fact, Rankin led a protest against the Vietnam War in 1968, when she was 87 years old.


Pointer: LoSonnambulo

14 thoughts on “Jeanette Rankin, The Pearl Harbor Ethics Dunce

  1. “She was the first woman to be elected to Congress, even before women were even able to vote. ”

    I believe that where, as in Montana, women could legally vote, that vote did extend to congressional elections?

  2. All I can say about this flavor of pacifism, of keeping your hands lily white when innocents pay the price is pah. That makes people like her superior at wanting us to be victims, NOT a virtue. My last exposure to the type was fictional, and selfish to value their pacifism more than their people they are supposed to lead and protect. I lean toward personal pacifism but recognize that is a privilege built from all those willing to defend us and respect them.

  3. Seems to me that feminism=pacifism is also an insult to WOMEN as well as men. The notions of the tough mama bear fighting for her cubs, the women who send their sons and daughters off to war to defend their country and holding down the fort until they return (and of course, women taking the Joan of Arc route) have served as positive female ideals in both modern times and days of yore.

    • As a woman Army vet I agree. I have always understood that there are things (Constitutional freedoms) worth fighting for. I was also willing to die for them if needed. Women as the the kinder, gentler sex is hogwash.

      • On the other hand, sometimes it works in favor of women who do evil things, i.e. Lizzie Borden, who almost certainly murdered her father and stepmother, but was acquitted because, among other things, her attorney successfully argued to the jury that she didn’t look like an axe-wielding fiend at a time when women were “angels in the home.”

  4. I can say a lot more than pah. I am a lifelong anti-pacifist, and I don’t understand how someone who even understands history a little bit could be in favor of it, the idea is simply foreign to me. History isn’t the story of people making friends, it’s the story of conflict, and it has been ever since Sargon of Akkad led his army of archers to overwhelm the Sumerians, who had no clue what a bow was, in the 22nd century B.C. (yes, I said B.C., I think B.C.E. is politically correct crap).

    All too often history has been a far too near run thing for the good guys, and all too often the good guys have only been saved by fighting. If Flavius Aetius “the last of the Romans” and his army hadn’t been there at Chalons-sur-Marne, the Dark Ages would have been a lot darker, and Europe might even have been dominated by an Asian people. Attila was not repulsed from Paris by the prayers of a young girl, nor from Rome by a vision of SS. Peter and Paul, but in the first case by the sight of the City of Lights’ formidable defenses, in the second because his army was not in fit condition to handle a siege. Justinian didn’t keep his throne (and get to write his famous code) amidst the Nika Revolt because he asked the rioters nicely to stop burning down Constantinople, he kept it because Narses slipped a few of the leaders some gold to abandon the rest before Belisarius and Mundus put them to the sword. The Muslims didn’t fail to take Europe in the 700s because the continent was peaceably inclined, they failed because Charles Martel and the first knights smashed them at Tours-Poitiers and Leo III and his fleet burned their ships to the waterline at Constantinople.

    The list goes on and on: Milvian Bridge (Christianity’s first test), the Spanish Armada (would relatively free England or Spain under tyrannical Philip II be master of the seas?), Blenheim (would France rule Europe?), Saratoga (would the US come to be?), Waterloo (would Napoleon get a second chance?) , Gettysburg (would the U.S. rip itself apart over slavery?), the Marne (would the army that raped Belgium also ruin France?), Midway (would Japan take the whole Pacific?) , are just a few of dozens more times freedom and the path of Western civilization were at stake where, if the victors hadn’t been there, or hadn’t fought, things would have gone the worse for that path. The USSR failed and finally came apart not because of peaceful exhortations, but because of relentless economic and military pressure from the West, mostly the U.S. What did pacifist influence get us in Vietnam, other than a unified Communist state and a national embarrassment? Oh yes, and Gandhi is way overrated. The Indian National Congress, the first independence movement in India, came to be in 1885, when he was only 17, and he never held political office. More importantly, in 1947 the UK had expended much of its military might and its entire national wealth stopping the Nazis, and was ready to let India go, indeed, Lord Mountbatten only agreed to take the post of Viceroy of India with the understanding that he would be the last.

    Jeanette Rankin may have cleaved to her ideals her entire life, but cleaving to a bad ideal doesn’t make her brave, it makes her stubborn. Her pacifism wasn’t even all that grounded in any kind of analysis. Voting against the entry into WWI (although only 49 Congressmen of 435 and six of ninety-six Senators joined her) was one thing. Even if we take into account the Zimmerman telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare, and Germany’s brutal treatment of Belgium, the United States was new to the world stage and the question of whether we should get involved in European affairs was still an open one. However, when asked about her vote, she didn’t couch it in terms of “I believe the US does not and should not have a stake in a war between European empires,” or “I believe the US can serve both sides in this conflict better by facilitating an end as President Roosevelt did in Portsmouth eight years ago than by taking sides.” She said, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” In other words, she was voting not in her nation’s interest, nor in the interests of her constituents, but because she thought a woman needed to look like a virtuous, lily-white pacifist, with no blood on her hands.

    Voting against WWII, against every other member of both the House and Senate, on the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, with Henderson Field a graveyard of the Warhawks, USS Arizona blown apart together with over 1000 of her crew, USS Oklahoma capsized, with Navy divers and welders struggling to free sailors trapped in darkness with imminent fear of drowning, USS West Virginia and USS California both sunken onto the mud, USS Nevada beached to avoid sinking and blocking the roadway, and the military hospitals overflowing with the dead and injured, some so badly burned they couldn’t be identified? My only response is WTF? Her answers? “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” and “I voted as the mothers would have had me vote.” Let’s put aside that there were women in the military at the time, though mostly as nurses and clerks, and that before the end of the war the WAC, the WAVES, the SPARs, and the Marine Corps would bring many more women into uniform. She presumed that she, a non-mother, was empowered to speak for all mothers and there was not a one that would have disagreed with her? What a pompous, virtue-signaling fool. Just to cap it off, years later, after WW2 was won and the full extent of what the Nazis and Japanese militarists had done was known, she was asked if she regretted her vote. Her response? “Never. If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.” Hey out there, all you black Americans! Jeanette says it was wrong for the U.S. to fight to free you! Hey out there, the rest of you Americans! Miss Rankin says we should still be drinking tea and eating crumpets, with no rights, only revocable benefits. Oh, and I’m sorry, Mrs. Shulman (my now-departed neighbor, who spent six lovely years in that wonderful spot called Buchenwald, Jeanette Rankin has a problem with the fact that the men of the 89th Infantry fought their way in and finally said, “OK, Miri, you can go now!”

    Peace is a great thing to have, but not at the expense of freedom, justice, and basic human dignity. Wisdom must dictate that sometimes peace must give way to those things. You can talk and write all you like about these things, but, sometimes, someone has to pick up a gun and make those things happen. Pacifism should never be a synonym for cowardice, stupidity, moral rigidity, or learned helplessness. Jeanette made it a synonym for all those things. She would have made a WONDERFUL writer, teacher, or social worker. She made for a terrible legislator.

    • Very nice, I was refreshed on a Pearl Harbor documentary last night. That alone was proof isolationist and reluctance to get involved was not good for our people. I disown that stand, even in fiction,

  5. “… a Nazi-orchestrated calamity for the human race.“

    Instead of the Soviet orchestrated one that they were trying to prevent.

  6. Let’s see. Indira Gandhi (Pakistan), Golda Mier (Yom Kippur), Margaret Thatcher (Falklands). Yep, ran their foreign and military affairs just as you’d expect June Cleaver to.

    • They were running things a generation later. All also had prior experience. They were not some idealistic first-timer out of the plains who believed if women ruled the world we’d be living in the peaceable kingdom.

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