Who is Jeanette Rankin? First woman to serve in Congress is focus of book

WORTHINGTON -- When people said, "A woman's place is in the home," Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the United States Congress, replied, "The way to protect the home is to have a say in the government."...

WORTHINGTON -- When people said, "A woman's place is in the home," Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the United States Congress, replied, "The way to protect the home is to have a say in the government."

Trish Windschill Marx, Worthington native and graduate of the local schools, has written a fine new book for older children titled "Jeannette Rankin, First Lady of Congress." The date of publication was timed to coincide with Women's History Month.

Marx, author of almost a dozen books, has received Notable and Outstanding Book Awards for at least three or four of them. She is the daughter of E.J. "Red" and Jean Windschill, former local residents.

Jeannette Rankin, subject of this recent biography, is remembered as the only member of Congress who voted against the United States entering both World War I and World War II. Also, she devoted many years of her life to fighting for women's suffrage.

Rankin grew up on a ranch in Montana, the oldest of seven children. When she was 12, she sewed up a gash on the shoulder of a wounded horse. She used "her mother's biggest needle and strongest thread," and when her parents arrived home that afternoon, they were proud of her. She had learned to help when a need arose, just as everyone in sparsely populated Montana had to do in the late 1800s.


Jeannette Rankin's father worked to open the University of Montana at Missoula, and she was the first Rankin child to be graduated. After she completed a stint of teaching in country school, her brother, a Harvard student, urged her to come east to Boston with a college friend, who was also ready for the adventure of a 3,000-mile journey by train.

When the two young women had their fill of teas, college lectures, shopping trips and even the opportunity to dance at President Theodore Roosevelt's Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., "Jeannette Rankin wanted something more" -- a closer look at the Boston slums. She knew she wanted these women and their children to have better lives.

"Maybe if women could vote in elections like men, then women could vote for laws that would make their lives better," Rankin said.

She enrolled at the New York School of Philanthropy, later returning West, where she worked in orphanages and settlement houses while campaigning for a woman's right to vote in Washington state and in Montana.

Rankin, at 36 years of age, was the first woman ever elected to Congress. When she arrived in Washington from Montana, "her fellow members expected her to be riding a horse and carrying a six-shooter."

Marx writes that Rankin had a bigger purpose than being a Congresswoman. "I'm working for women's suffrage and against war." She stood by her campaign promise never to send American boys to war, voting against entering World War I. "You can no more win a war than win an earthquake," she declared.

Although her anti-war stance cost her re-election, she spent the next 20 years working for peace and women's rights. In 1940, she again won a seat in Congress on a peace platform and then knew she must vote against America's entry into World War II, even though she was the only member of Congress to do so. After casting her vote, she had to hide in a phone booth for safety until police could rescue her from an angry mob.

Following the war, she traveled to India a number of times to study Gandhi's teachings on non-violence. When she was 87, she led a march to Capitol Hill to protest the Vietnam War.


She was remarkably unaffected by criticism and rejection and appears not to have looked back with regret at her decisions. Toward the end of her life, she said, "I worked for women's suffrage for 10 years and got it. I've worked for peace for 55 years and haven't come close." After her death in 1973, she received many tributes calling her "the original dove in Congress."

Marx writes in a free-verse style with white spaces between seven, nine, 12 lines of printed words. She suggests that this style makes pages more appealing to middle school readers than the usual, more intimidating dense paragraphs. This style appeals to adults as well; I really like to read her declarative prose, which sounds almost like poetry. Marx also has an ear for the telling vignette and uses very expressive language.

Sharing her book at one of the school classes in the Bronx that she attends monthly through an organization in New York called Learning Leader, a boy told her that Jeannette Rankin reminded him of Rosa Parks.

Illustrator Dan Andreasen has drawn evocative pictures of Rankin, mostly in brown and white tones, showing her activities throughout her long life. He has illustrated a number of children's books and a recent book by Sandra Day O'Connor.

A few years ago Marx came across a Rankin quote in her son's high school history book. She thought, "Wow! Who is this woman? Why haven't I heard about her?" She knew then that she wanted to write about her.

After completing the biography, Marx said: "Jeannette Rankin becomes more relevant all the time. She still wows me, as I believe she will the young Jeannettes everywhere to whom the book is dedicated."

A valuable resource for school libraries, "First Lady of Congress" can be found in the Nobles County Library, along with other titles by Trish Marx.

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