Despite a 90-foot Virgin Mary looming over Butte, there can be little doubt that Montana's more popular Lady of the Rockies is Jeannette Rankin. Famous for her historic achievement as the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and her two votes against war, Rankin's name and image are invoked by feminists and pacifists alike. From her statue in the state capitol to the Missoula peace center that bears her name to the women in black standing for peace on
the Higgins Avenue bridge, Rankin's legacy stands as a cultural icon Montanans tend to promote with neither question nor complexity. Frustrated by this tendency, University of Montana professors Jean Luckowski and James Lopach set out to disrobe the icon and reveal
the human beneath in Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman. What they discovered was a woman far more interesting than the heroic figure we celebrate in the West.
Jeannette Rankin was "driven by a demon." Frustrated with the isolation of Montana, she wrote in her journal: "Go! Go! Go! It makes no difference where just so you go! go! go! Remember at the first opportunity go!"
And go she did. In addition to her ranch in Montana, Rankin would build a modest home in rural Georgia, which would become her adopted state, spend as much time in New York as possible, travel to India campaigning for her radical ideas, and die in California. In addition to her convictions, Rankin was energized by a desire for fame and recognition. She traveled the country campaigning for women's suffrage, broke new ground by getting elected to Congress in 1916 at age 36 and won a second term in 1940 at the age of 60. Although her votes against World Wars I and II amounted to political suicide, her peace work contributed to the near-mythical shadow she casts today. Even so, "she strove the rest of her life to recapture her lost fame."
The Jeannette Rankin that emerges in the Luckowski and Lopach biography is one beset by contradictions. A staunch feminist who criticized women who didn't espouse feminine superiority and independence, Rankin herself relied on the financial wealth and political savvy of her brother. Not only did he advise her and run her campaigns, but he may have also bought her 1916 election ("I'll pay for your campaign and I'll elect you," he wrote to her). Wellington Rankin, a wealthy Missoula lawyer who would unsuccessfully run for governor of Montana and U.S. senator, dominated the Rankin family. Not only did he financially support all his siblings and their children, he also dictated the actions in their lives and forced them to put his needs first. Twice in 1942, while Jeannette served her second congressional term, Wellington ordered her back to Montana, first to care for their ailing mother and later to discuss his upcoming Senate campaign. Despite her Congressional duties, Jeannette obeyed her brother, calling him "the best brother in the world."
Jeannette's dependent relationship with her brother wasn't the only paradox in her life. In fact, Luckowski and Lopach offer an extensive catalog: "She grew up in a mansion with modern plumbing, but she lived as an adult in a shack without a toilet. She enjoyed the benefits of wealth, but she attacked people of privilege...She was a stock-trading capitalist, but she espoused socialist solutions to society's problems. She ignored peonage on her Montana ranch, but she advocated labor reforms...She submitted to her brother's rule, but she was a New Woman."
Despite the complex portrait painted by the authors, A Political Woman often struggles to tell a gripping narrative. What emerges is a collection of lurid and compelling conclusions drawn from exhaustive research, but not a life story. Organizing their book by subject matter ("First Term," "Second Term") rather than chronology, the authors slip into a routine of sharing conclusions supported by a laundry list of quotations from personal letters and contemporary articles.
To be fair, the book's introduction explains how readers might benefit from the non-conventional format, but the structure itself, not to mention the overuse of quotations (by my estimate, more than half the prose is quotation) contributes to a somewhat lifeless biography.
The book, however, is ultimately an important one. Unlike many biographies that seek only to laud their subject's successes, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman doesn't idealize Montana's first daughter. Rather, it illustrates a woman both radical and traditional, stubborn yet political, righteous but realistic.
Jean Luckowski and James Lopach will read from and sign Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman at Fact & Fiction Monday, Nov. 21, at 7 PM.