July 05, 2020
There are many words used to describe a change maker -- discoverer, trailblazer, pioneer, groundbreaker, visionary, history maker, iconic leader. Research shows that stories written about change makers are oftentimes controversial - many disagree in Time magazine’s decision to name Hitler to the prestigious position of person of the year.
While the first woman being elected to the U.S. Congress has more positive impact than the horrific atrocities of Hitler, Jeannette Rankin’s election to Congress came before women even had the right to vote nationwide. Is she considered a change maker: a trailblazer? Today, Jeannette is undoubtedly seen as a role model for her courage and activism. In 1916 however, she was indeed a change maker for some, while others found her actions contentious, argumentative, and a threat to democracy.
Fear looms large when change is on the horizon. That is where we begin our story -- when Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916.
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1920. This gave women the right to vote across the entire nation. Before that, however, about 20 states had granted voting rights to women, Montana being one of them. That’s where Jeannette Rankin lived, advocated for women’s rights, ran for an open seat in Congress, won and became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
All eyes were upon her to see if she could handle the pressure and responsibility that came with a high-profile political office. Within a few months, Jeannette was called upon to place one of the most difficult votes of her tenure. She voted against the U.S. entering World War 1, giving fuel to her critics who called it proof that a woman wasn’t fit for office -- ignoring the fact that 55 men also voted against it as well. Ultimately, Jeannette proved she was not only capable of her place in Congress, but instrumental in paving the way for the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Standing on the House Floor in 1918, after the vote to enter World War 1 had been passed, Jeannette said, “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen? How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” In her later years, her opposition to war and courage of her convictions prompted her to become one of the first vocal opponents to the Vietnam War. In 1967, she organized the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, and at 88 years old, took to the streets in highly publicized protests that are seen as the gateway for the public’s shift against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Trailblazers -- visionaries -- change makers. The first of anything: the first astronaut-the first female astronaut, the first doctor-the first female doctor, the first person to climb Mount Everest-the first woman to climb Mount Everest. These trailblazers -- and so many more -- are well documented in articles, documentaries and books. Some are well-known: Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks. Others may invite you to pause to read their stories: Rachel Carson and Claudette Colvin.
Another trailblazer you may not be familiar with is Catherine Cox. Her daughter, author and professor Heather Cox Richardson wrote of her mother on what would have been her 98th birthday. Inspired to join the Army in 1943 after listening to Adolf Hitler incite anger and fear, Catherine Cox went against the public perception of women in the armed forces and answered her country’s call for service. To encourage women to enlist, the Army had created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Even so, the idea of women in the army was not supported in the public. People accused women of taking the safe jobs so their sons and husbands would be freed to be killed in battle. Even Catherine’s own mother was furious that she had joined WAAC, refusing to put the sign in the window indicating that her daughter was a member of the armed forces. The attacks continued throughout the war, with some going so far as accusing them of being so obsessed with men that this was a sure way to trick one by getting pregnant. And yet, she persisted. Catherine Cox completed her service along with 350,000 nameless American women who served alongside her. Together, their contributions to our country helped defeat Hitler and the Third Reich. Catherine’s story probably won’t make the nightly news or be honored as others have. Yet, this is where the Holy can be found. Among the nameless and faceless who answer a call to be someone other than what has been pre-determined for them by restrictive cultural or gender norms.
The ones who break free of toxic familial patterns of abuse, and say “never again.”
The ones who fearlessly pave a new way to solve an old problem, regardless of the ones who say “it can’t be done.”
The ones who simply get up every day and do what’s right when the world says, “why?”
The path of the change maker is like no other. It arises from a space of knowing that you were made for these times.
That time is now, Beloved.
It may not earn you the accolades of millions.
All that matters is that it is in alignment with who you are, and why you are here.
Your unique gifts will change someone or something.
That is all that matters.
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