A few weeks ago we sent a questionnaire to former members of the Senate and House of Representatives, as part of our year-long study of Congress. The most spirited and fundamental response came from Jeannette Rankin, born in 1880 in Missoula, Montana and the first woman ever elected to the Congress.
Indomitable and innovative as always, the great fighter for women’s suffrage before 90 percent of today’s Americans were born, was not satisfied with detailed answers to our questions. She wanted to come to Washington from her California home to talk to us and make her points more forcefully. She did come for a day and we’re all younger as a result.
She wasted no time in telling a crowded room of students working on the Congress study that there can be no real improvement in Congress without changing the system by which the legislators are elected. The system which she has been advocating for over half a century is the multi-member district reform.
Simply put, this reform would reduce the number of Congressional districts in a state; for example, New York currently with 41 districts would be reduced to about six districts. The 41 Representatives would run from these six districts, thus giving the voters several members of Congress to elect from their own district. In this manner, she reasons, the voters could elect members to Congress who represent the diversity of the population and who will overcome the barriers against women, minorities and younger adults that have made that legislature a bastion of older white males.
With multi-member districts, determined by the individual states, the top, say, five or six candidates (fewer in the smaller states) would be elected from the entire list of those running for Congress in that district. Consequently, as little as 20 percent ofthe vote could elect a member of Congress, leading, in her judgment, to a diversity of representation for many kinds of talents, backgrounds and viewpoints.
Ms. Rankin speaks from experience. When she was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1916 from Montana, it was because Montana ran the two Congressional offices at large (or statewide) which in effect is a multi-member district. Since women obtained the right to vote in Montana two years previously, it gave them the opportunity to elect the first woman to Congress.
Will Congress ever favor multi-member districts? She says no, but the “ordinary people” she has explained the idea to wherever she travels around the country, from Georgia to California, understand it readily and most favor its adoption. Over and over again, she repeats that the way to get things changed is “to go to the people.”
To permit ideals and conviction fuller play in the Congress, she has long pushed for electronic voting so members can vote on different parts of a bill and not have to “trade-off” good parts against bad parts of any legislation.
Perhaps even more striking than her suggestions for Congressional reform is the combination of her idealism with a practical sense of citizenship responsibility and action in a democracy. Her exhortations to women are to “assume the responsibility of government.” Put that way, freedom and peace (she is an unyielding pacifist) are achieved only through the assumption of “duty” or “responsibility” by people to “practice democracy.”
Her stamina behind these ideas and ideals is absolutely staggering. What an example for millions of young people today whose commitment to a better society is so temporary and pockmarked by becoming disillusioned or discouraged. For the students in their early twenties, listening to her talk that day, a comparable commitment on their part would extend until the year 2042!
Ms. Rankin rarely talked about the past, unless asked. She is a future directed person who throws herself into her cause. “A 40 hour a week job isn’t worth doing,” she says. “I’m a bit more frustrated now, however; I worked for suffrage for 10 years, and got it. I’ve worked for peace for 55 years, and haven’t come close.”
If aging is the erosion of one’s ideals, then Jeannette Rankin is young forever. “I’m 92,” she observed, “and I’m thinking about running again–just to have someone to vote for.”