Thursday, April 2, 2009

History and the Movies: Jeannette Rankin

I often connect history and the movies in my head. When I think about or read about an historical event, often a movie dealing with the same themes will come to mind. Today is no exception. On this day in 1917 Jeanette Rankin officially took her seat in the House of Representatives to become the first woman elected to the United States Congress, and whenever I think of Rankin, Friendly Persuasion comes to mind. Allow me to explain.

Women did not have the right to vote across the nation yet in 1918 when Rankin was first elected but they did in Montana, the state from which she hailed. Her election was historic but unfortunately for Rankin, a mere four days after taking her seat there was a vote to enter into the war in Europe, later to be known as World War I. It was unfortunate because she was a pacifist and took the unpopular route of voting against it. A total of fifty members voted against it but as a woman, she was singled out, as if all women would immediately be pacifist. The implication being that a woman didn't have the guts to go to war, nevermind the 49 men who also voted against it. She wasn't re-elected and stayed on in Washington for twenty years as a lobbyist until being voted back to Congress in 1940. Yes, 1940, meaning that December 7th, 1941 occurred during her term of office. Surely her timing at getting elected, not once but twice, decades apart, both times just when a World War was underway, has to be one of the most extraordinary instances of bad luck in political history.

She voted against war with Japan and this time she was not one of fifty, she was one of one. She was alone. Her statement before casting her lone "Nay" vote was, ""As a woman, I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else. It is not necessary. I vote NO." It is probably not necessary to relate that this did not go over particularly well. The position was so unpopular she didn't even bother to attempt a re-election campaign.

Rankin was called a pacifist, even by herself, but I don't think that's entirely accurate, or better put, it doesn't tell the whole story. It's all a matter of degrees. Years ago in a discussion with a Professor of History (yes, I was the kind of student that stayed after class and got into discussions with my professors) he told me that he couldn't abide pacifists. They do nothing in the face of injustice, he said, and were to his mind immoral. An activist stands against injustice and he held up Gandhi and Martin Luther King as two shining examples. Non-violent activism was not the same as Pacifism and it bothered him when people confused the two. But that's only one view of Pacifism and a fairly limited one at that (sorry Prof). If you go to this entry on Wikipedia you can see there are as many definitions of Pacifism as there are outlooks on world affairs. Jeanette Rankin was no immoral Pacifist refusing to fight for justice. Quite the opposite.

In life, after voting against both wars, she worked with the war effort on the homefront and later led a march of some 5,000 women to the Capitol Building protesting the Vietnam War. Rankin was an activist with non-violent principles. An extreme pacifist, one that refuses to become involved in any way is quite different than Rankin. One could argue that merely getting elected and taking part in the political process proved she was no Pacifist of the non-involvement variety.

In Friendly Persuasion it's that idea of non-involvement that is palpable. I don't much like the film because I feel it swings back and forth between serious examination of principles and lightheartedness too often and too uneasily for me. I'm no big fan of Samantha the Goose and feel the story would have been better served without all the silliness in between the moral arguments. But those arguments of principle are what make the movie worthwhile. And it has always made me wonder about the ideals of non-involvement.

In the film the Birdwell family will avoid involvement even to the point of not protecting themselves. The son Josh, played by Anthony Perkins, decides to fight against the approaching Confederate hordes and protect himself and his family. His father Jess, Gary Cooper, does not and disagrees with the action. The problem for me is that the film tries to have it both ways. Josh fights but isn't killed and so the characters are spared having to deal with the moral guilt of someone dying to protect them, the very act of with which they disagree.

Or the scene where Jess fights a soldier, overpowers him and then lets him go. Had the soldier threatened Jess enough that Jess kills him in the heat of the moment there would be more places to go but as it is we get to see Jess fight for himself and also be a pacifist, having his cake and eating it too.

How about when the home is invaded while Jess and Josh are gone? The mother, Dorothy McGuire, invites the soldiers in, let's them have whatever they want and everyone's happy. Would that really happen, or would she have been raped and killed? And then would Jess have stood by his religious beliefs or engaged in an act of revenge?

All questions never answered by the film because it never asks them. Still, it is a well made film and William Wyler's direction is admirable. The way the films juggles the moral questions and finally skirts around them though, isn't. In the end, the movie is too afraid to support any one view of pacifism or non-violence to its conclusion. The ideals of fighting for what one believes in but stopping short of violence to get it is an admirable principle, one that I am not sure I could adhere to every day of my life. It would be interesting to see it explored fully by a film like Friendly Persuasion but only in real life, with the likes of Jeanette Rankin, Martin Luther King and Mohandas K. Gandhi, can we see those ideas realized and fully examined.