A Rich History of Women who Changed our Country, and the Need for More Today

Throughout history remarkable women have led countries, empires and communities. Elisabeth I, Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, St. Catherine of Siena and Florence Nightingale are just a few incredible women that come to mind. However, these women are not our women in our country working with our constitution and our laws. The United States is still in the process of creating the normative activity of confirming great women leaders. In our country, we’re still taking the baby steps of this history with a few of our own incredible women.

I find it empowering and exciting to live in an age of such important history-making. As we learn how to create space for female government officials, the United States also learns to build bridges for every woman. President Obama’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security is a step in this direction. Briefly, the plan states that research shows that women have a unique and invaluable perspective for building peace and conflict resolution, that women’s voices need to be counted in the making of governmental decisions, and that without women leaders we are only half the country we could be.

The first woman elected to the federal government also felt this way. Jeannette Rankin, voted to office three years before women could vote in the United States, was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican from the state of Montana. Ms. Rankin lived a life of pacifism. She was one of 50 members of Congress to vote against entering World War I. Rankin failed to win the following elections so she moved to Georgia, founded social programs for children, founded the Georgia Peace Society, lectured on pacifism and lobbied for legislature that would ban child labor. Rankin was elected back to Congress during the Second World War. She was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. When Rankin voted against declaring war on Japan, she was hissed at from the gallery. Several colleagues asked her to change her vote to make the war declaration unanimous. Rankin was followed by an angry mob after refusing to change her mind and was rescued from a telephone booth by congressional police. Rankin responded with the following quote, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”

 Jeannette Rankin was the first woman in the U.S. Congress.

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman in the U.S. Congress.

Rankin’s pacifism was born out of a life lived in rural Montana in the late 1800s. Regarding her pacifism, Rankin believed that the corruption in the federal government was related to a lack of feminine perspective. “The peace problem is a woman’s problem. Disarmament will not be won without their aid. So long as they shirk…something will be radically wanting in the peace activities of the public and the state…I am aware that men are disposed to look down on the temperamental pacifism of women (which in spite of all the exceptions is a psychological fact) as something that the manly man would scorn to imitate. However, there is no other way that I can see in which peace can be realized except through forbearance from fighting on the part of men as well as women…Therefore peace is a woman’s job.”

One hundred and forty one years before Rankin stood on the side of peace as the first female member of Congress, Abigail Adams wrote a letter asking her husband to “remember the ladies” as he and our other founding fathers sat to write out our Declaration of Independence. Abigail received a letter in return from John Adams that did not address the issue of women. So Abigail wrote her dear husband this warning: “But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, [women] have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”

“Without violence,” Abigail writes. As if all women would agree, Abigail adds to her statement regarding the rise of women that we would do it without violence. Interestingly, the US women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century was almost wholly pacifist.

Today, in a season where Congress is perpetually gridlocked and polarized, voices emerge wondering if the United States’ leadership would be so waylaid if more women were involved. If you search HERvotes, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, USAID’s Women Empowerment programs or simply search International Women’s Day (March 8) or look up the National Women’s History Month (March), you will find that there are many voices calling for a more equal playing field for women in leadership.

May the day come when our leadership represents more fully our demographic makeup. Among diverse opinions, many women believe that the first amendment and the nineteenth amendment mean that women have a responsibility to actively engage with our civil system. Today, there are 101 women in Congress. Certainly, that’s 100 more than 1917 when Jeannette Rankin stood alone. 101 women in Congress are nowhere near proportional representation to the US population but the task of history-making takes time.

-Carrie Kohler recently finished her Masters of Philosophy degree at Trinity College Dublin and is now the lead consultant for CFK Consulting, a nationwide organization located in D.C.