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Local View: Voice for peace needs to be reinvigorated, re-enshrined

A close-up photo of police lights by night

She was born in 1880 and became the first woman elected to Congress.

Tim DuffShe started out her life as a social worker but did not like the tasks she was assigned, and later, in 1910, became an activist for women's suffrage.

She eventually worked with Jane Adams and Emily Greene Balch at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and with other peace and justice organizations. In 1968, she led a brigade in a protest against the Vietnam War, joining with Coretta Scott King to present a petition on behalf of Women Strike for Peace.

She once said, "As a woman I can't go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else."

The journalist William Allen White once wrote of her that, "When in one hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage, based on moral indignation, is celebrated in this country, this woman's name, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but the way she did it."

She was elected to Congress as a Republican from Montana in 1916, as the state had extended the vote to women in 1914. She campaigned for "preparedness for peace." She was one of the lone votes against war in 1917. Her vote alienated some suffragists, who claimed it set back the movement by years. Most suffragists thought that the "cause" would be better served if she had taken what they considered a more patriotic stand. Running for reelection to the House was out of the question, in consequence of her antiwar vote.

She was elected to Congress a second time in 1940, again campaigning for American neutrality and American preparedness for peace. After Pearl Harbor, when a declaration of war came before her one more time, she again voted "no." She was the only member of Congress who did. Angry war supporters threatened her, and reporters swarmed around her. At one point she was forced to take refuge in a phone booth in the Capitol.

Her congressional elections, she said, were due in large part to a powerful metaphorical story she told while campaigning. This began in 1916 when her campaign visited schools, mostly one-room schoolhouses. Speaking to students, she told the story of a boy who had been a classmate of hers. As a baby he had been carried in a covered wagon across hostile territory. Early one morning, the caravan heard trouble. The white men in the caravan ran for their guns. But the mother of the boy took her baby in her arms and walked ahead alone. The Indians halted when they saw her approaching. She handed her baby to one of them. It was, quite possibly, the first time any of them had seen a white baby. Her gesture was taken as a sign of trust and friendship. The baby was handed back, and both groups went on their way.

When she finished the story she said to the children, "You will not be able to hand your senator a baby when he comes to your town, but you can do something to make him understand that you really care about abolishing strife and hatred among men."

In her campaign for the U.S. House in 1940, she continued to tell the "baby of peace" story, this time to high school students and to their parents who remembered the powerful peace metaphor first shared with them two and a half decades earlier.

She was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a powerful and fearless advocate for peace and for keeping our country out of war.

We need to actively re-enshrine and reinvigorate her voice for peace.

Tim Duff is a writer who lives in Ely and Tonka Bay, Minn. His debut novel, "The Find," is a family saga set on the Iron Range.