“Ask your fathers why they won’t let your mothers vote.”
As Jeannette Rankin was becoming one of the leading suffrage voices in America in the early 1900s, she would utter those words to children in one of the 25 speeches she was said to give over a 25-day period.
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916. But as author Peter Aronson says in the introduction to Jeannette Rankin – America’s First Congresswoman (Double M Books Inc.), “She was far more than the first U.S. congresswoman. A suffrage leader, a feminist, a pacifist until the day she died, some might say she was a woman 100 years ahead of her time.”
Aronson’s book, geared for middle-grade readers, is the second in his developing Groundbreaker Series — biographies about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. It follows his initial Groundbreaker work, Bronislaw Huberman: From Child Prodigy to Hero, the Violinist who Saved Jewish Musicians from the Holocaust.
Says the author, “Although not a household name now or then, Jeannette Rankin was one of the most accomplished women in U.S. history in the 20th century. She was a hero to many, loved and honored. To others, she was controversial, even a traitor to some.”
Aronson had been an attorney who only recently made the transition to a full-time author writing educational books for children. “I realized my kids were reading mostly fantasy, dystopian-themed novels,” he explains. “With the real world so rich with the good, the bad and the unbelievable, I found this to be sad. So I decided to start writing books for kids focusing more on the real world – either through biographies or novels with a strong dose of reality.”
The book traces the life of this pioneer woman using clear and simple language designed to captivate and intrigue the young reader. In fact, the tale begins in the pioneer land of Montana, even before Montana was a state. Rankin embodied the pioneer spirit at a young age and matured early, “already exhibiting unusual independence and confidence” by the age of 10.
Early on, she searched for how she could make a contribution – a difference in some of what she was observing. In a trip east to visit her brother at law school, “she walked the streets of Boston and the Lower East Side in New York. She saw poor, struggling immigrants, crammed together in crowded dirty tenements…Seeing this human suffering opened Jeannette’s eyes.”
She became a social worker in Washington state and went through great personal pain trying to find homes for orphaned and sick children. “I will never forget it,” Jeannette said many years later. “There were too many children; only a few could be placed. Half of them returned when people changed their minds.” Between their health and bad habits, nobody wanted them.
The right for women to vote, ultimately, became the perfect motivator Rankin was in search of. “It stopped her in her tracks…This would change her life forever.”
Aronson writes of what she told legislators at the time: “It’s beautiful and right that a woman should nurse her sick children through typhoid fever, but it’s also beautiful and right that she should vote for sanitary measures to prevent typhoid from spreading.”
Not long after, she took the step of running for Congress. Aronson quotes her, “The primal motive…is to further the suffrage work and to aid in every possible way the movement for nationwide suffrage, which will not cease until it is won.”
She became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. Before she was done, she was elected to Congress twice.
Her days were not without disappointments, and her victories were offset with plenty of losses.
One of the more dramatic events took place her first day in the Capitol as a member of Congress when President Woodrow Wilson called an emergency meeting to determine whether the United States should enter World War I. In the first vote of a woman congresswoman, she voted against – even though the declaration passed handily.
Similarly, she voted no to enter World War II after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This time, however, the vote was 388 to 1. She stood alone in her conviction for peace at all costs.
Rankin stayed active and involved almost to the very end of her life. She continued to be an important anti-war activist into her 80s, leading thousands as the Jeannette Rankin brigade marched in Washington against the Vietnam War. The author concludes, “Rankin is remembered as a great woman, a groundbreaking woman, a woman who set a path for many to come after her, but one who fought a losing battle for eternal peace on earth. She is remembered as a feminist ahead of her times, as a woman who never backed down, a woman who stood by her beliefs throughout her life.”
Jeannette Rankin – America’s First Congresswoman contains more than 60 historic photographs and is now available for purchase.
ABOUT PETER ARONSON:
Peter Aronson is a former journalist, a former attorney and now a children’s book author. He has a strong desire to tell stories about important and inspiring individuals who are not well known. He started his Groundbreaker Series for middle-grade readers for that purpose. He lives in New York City. To learn more, visit www.peteraronsonbooks.com.
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