How far we've come 

New biography puts Jeannette Rankin in her place

One frigid Missoula afternoon not quite a week ago, a friend of mine, a graduate student at the university, made the following observation: “The most frustrating thing about Judy [Martz] is that she may well have set back the cause of women in politics in this state twenty or thirty years. I may not be alive long enough to see the day that another woman is elected governor of this state.”

This friend belongs to that class of “non-traditional” students, which means, among other things, that she has worked very hard for a decade or two as a single mother to three nearly adult boys. While sympathetic, I’m temporarily at a loss to offer her any consolation, other than my as-yet-unproven political theory that Martz isn’t actually a woman at all, but National Republican Party Chairman and former governor Marc Racicot dressed up like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, covertly defying term limitations and collecting two paychecks from the capitol in Helena.

“They’re the same height,” I offer as evidence, “and last Thursday when she—or he—was dressed up in that Tigger outfit for Halloween handing out candy to school children, I couldn’t help but notice the irregular bulge in—”

“Please.”

“They have exactly the same smile, I swear.” I tell my friend, “Just try to imagine this picture with out the make-up.” I point to the cover of last week’s Indy.

“It could be,” she admits. “The hair looks the same, just blond. But that doesn’t solve the pro-blem. Where are the women role models in politics going to come from?”

“Probably not from Montana,” I say, conceding that Marc Racicot is making a fool of himself as a woman.

“Yeah,” my friend replies, with a sigh that could only be construed as the dark yin to the joyous ya-ya yang of sisterhood. “Where is Jeannette Rankin when you need her?”

Strangely enough, soon thereafter I caught up with Jeannette and, coinciding with the 15th anniversary of her namesake Peace Center, I think I’ve got an answer to the role model question, thanks to a rich new biography of Montana’s first congresswoman. Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience is an enlightening account of a heroic life, as well as an entertaining, informative, occasionally even riveting read. Written by the late Norma Smith, a confidant of Rankin’s, and edited by MSU history professor Joan Hoff, this book not only provides the good, bad and ugly of Rankin’s life and times, but provides a nostalgic look back into the mists of political history when narrow, greedy powerful interests ruled state politics. Rankin at that time achieved heroine status by fighting for all the accoutrements of a free-wheeling democratic society that we take for granted today: fantastic health care for all; cheap, safe nurturing child care; decent housing regardless of means; peace; and freedom from the long shadow big business had cast over government. Now these problems are no more a concern than slavery, thanks in part to Rankin.

Things have changed—the Republican Party, for instance, was burdened with a Progressive Wing—and Rankin battled for office in a state where a single company owned all the daily newspapers. Under such oppressive corporate hegemony, how could one of the key functions of a healthy press—that of keeping democratic citizens well-informed—take place without prejudice?

Things sure were barbaric back then.

Rankin also sharply criticized that same company, The Company, Anaconda Copper, for shameless war profiteering—copper made munitions—and tax dodging. (In 1922, author Smith points out, Anaconda paid a tax of $14,000 on revenues of $20 million. This as opposed to farmers, laborers and other working stiffs who were stuck with about a third of their income going to state taxes.) Voices of dissent such as labor leader Frank Little were sometimes murdered [see film review page 36]. In Little’s case, his body was hung from a railroad trestle with this cryptic warning: Others Take Notice: First and Last Warning.

Now here’s an area where giant strides have been made in the past century. These days a few big companies pay almost no taxes at all. And Montana Power, the last vestige of The Company, got out of the electricity business and into the phone business, voluntarily making themselves a whole lot less powerful. That’s not something they would have considered back then. And there’s no more violence. No need, what with so many legislators racing to cut taxes for The Company, even though they no longer exist, even further. And our working class is nice, thrifty and quiet.

Of course the votes that made Rankin famous—two “no” votes for American entry in both world wars—are really ancient history. We’re advanced enough now that we just vote to give the peace-loving president, who is appointed by the Supreme Court, full authority to take military action, which is way different from war.

And Rankin would be way out of line to complain about war profiteering on the part of Montana companies, since there aren’t too many that sell much of anything out of state, much less overseas or to the army. Most of those types of conflicts of interest seem to have migrated south, to Texas.

Yes, I’ve got Jeannette Rankin pegged: short on the pragmatic, practical economic solutions that are so effective today, more interested in the America that Lincoln envisioned than the one Teddy Roosevelt created. Rankin is rightfully famous not only because she’s a woman, but because she stood by some hard-won, carefully thought-out principles back when her colleagues were about 80 years dumber, greedier and more myopic than we are now. She was way ahead of her time.

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