MTPR'S Eric Whitney interviews WNYC's Mara Silvers, a Montana native, about the podcast episode she produced for WNYC's United States of Anxiety podcast, which you can find here: "The Original Nasty Woman."
For the second time in three years, Montanans will have a chance to elect the second woman ever to represent this state in Congress.
Democrat Kathleen Williams is challenging Republican Greg Gianforte who defeated Denise Juneau in the 2017 special election. The first and only woman Montana has sent to Congress was also the first woman in the nation to serve in the U.S. House – Jeannette Rankin, elected in 1916. A new episode of the podcast United States of Anxiety from WNYC in New York is out and examines Rankin's life and legacy, as well as Kathleen William's quest to succeed her, and talked with us about it.
Eric Whitney: You came back to Montana to gather material for this episode and it starts with you asking people if they've heard of Jeanette Rankin. What kind of responses did you get?
Mara Silvers: Well, it was kind of a range actually, and I was a bit surprised by that. I thought that more people would know her name right off the bat. But some people took a little bit of prompting. And then once I said Jeannette Rankin they maybe remembered her a little more and said, oh yeah, she was – she was the first woman in Congress.
But for the most part, it was not on the tip of everyone's tongue. But when I got them talking a little bit more, they tended to remember parts of her legacy, like her votes against World War I and World War II. And just her reputation as being a courageous leader for women's suffrage and women's rights.
EW: I didn't know for instance that she spent a lot of time in New York City, and your podcast makes it sound like that was a really transformative time for her.
MS: I also didn't know that. She left and moved to New York City when she was in her 20s. And it seems like she really felt stifled in Montana. Like she didn't have a lot of opportunities that were there for her. She wrote in her journal actually, “Go, go, go. It doesn't matter where so long as you go, go, go.” And she went to New York City to study social work in 1908. That's when she really started getting wrapped up in a lot of the radical movements of the time that were happening in New York City, specifically in Greenwich Village. This is where so many radical activists and ideas were kind of percolating. There was Emma Goldman, a renowned anarchist, and Margaret Sanger, the birth-control advocate. So Rankin was kind of coming of age and discovering more about herself amongst these women who are on the cutting edge of a lot of the social and political thought of the time.
EW: Your podcast says that Rankin was very private about her personal life. And it sounds like there's been a lot of speculation about her sexuality over the years.
MS: It's something that historians are careful about because they don't want to ascribe a word or a term to her, like lesbian, or queer, or gay that she herself didn't use. But the free-love movements and what we now call lesbianism was part of the environment that she was in in New York City. It was a part of the political activism. It was often as historians say was seen, not as something that was necessarily taboo, just more so that it was exploratory and something that a lot of people did. And those relationships that she made with women in Greenwich Village lasted throughout her life. And as historians, such as Jim Lopach and Jean Luckowski from the University of Montana, as they've pointed out, a lot of these decades of correspondence show a lot of declarations of love and compassion and want for companionship with one another.
I did actually speak to one historian who has written a lot about 19th-century and 20th-century lesbianism, Lillian Faderman, and she put it this way:
Lillian Faderman: Women who were leaders in all of these pioneering efforts at women's equality, efforts at getting women into the professions. It makes sense that they would form relationships that were not heterosexual.
MS: And Eric, what she's talking about there is really that at the time if women wanted to pursue a career, if they wanted to pursue academia, or like Rankin, was doing social work and put their whole selves into it – it wasn't very compatible to have a marriage with a man. Because then you would become a housewife and you would have all these domestic responsibilities that would stop you from pursuing the things that you're passionate about. So many women stayed single but they might have had domestic partnerships with women or in Rankin’s case have long-lasting relationships with a lot of different women over the course of her life. And that suited her professional ambitions and her political legacy.
EW: In your podcast, we actually get to hear Jeanette Rankin's voice?
MS: Yeah. And that was kind of tricky to find but she did do an interview in the 1960s when she was in her 80s. And this audio is courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. She was kind of describing what it took for her to be a candidate at the time and how to distinguish herself from the many other men who were running for office.
Jeannette Rankin: My opponents had too much dignity. They couldn’t stand on the street corner and talk. So I had that advantage.
MS: Rankin throughout that interview describes being able to drive all over the state when she was campaigning for suffrage and for her own campaign in Montana. And all over the country when she was campaigning for suffrage in other states as well. And everywhere she went she kind of had this same strategy of going to the small towns, stationing herself on a corner. She would talk to anyone about anything. There was no topic that was off the table either.
EW: Pretty radical stuff for the 19-teens for a woman to be campaigning at all. What was her message on the campaign trail?
MS: Because Rankin came to political organizing from the suffrage movement, that took up a lot of her campaign strategy as well. And a lot of her campaign rhetoric.
JR: It was entirely on suffrage. And the suffrage – the idea that women should be represented. And that women should have something to say about the laws - that I ran and was elected on.
EW: Remind me about the timeline of women getting the right to vote. Women in Montana actually got it here before they did in the U.S. as a whole right?
MS: Right. So before the 19th Amendment passed there was the state-by-state suffrage campaign that Jeannette Rankin was a field organizer for and was very much involved in New York and Ohio and California and Washington State and all over. But she did end up eventually coming back to Montana, and in 1914 Montana voted to give women the right to vote. Although, Native American women weren't included in that because Native Americans wouldn't become citizens until 1924 – ten years later. Montana was actually the 11th state to give women the vote. But it was a really big part of Rankin building up her campaign for Congress.
EW: Let's fast forward about a hundred years to where we are now, 2018. Kathleen Williams is running to be the second woman from Montana to go to Congress. She's certainly no radical. She said she wouldn't vote for Nancy Pelosi to continue as House speaker. And she said she's willing to work with President Trump. Does she compare herself to Jeannette Rankin?
MS: No, not exactly. I talked to her at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte in July and this is what she told me.
Kathleen Williams: I just say that she deserves a successor. If anyone compares me to Jeannette Rankin, I want to earn it.
MS: She's said a lot in public speeches that Jeannette Rankin deserves a successor. That's not new language per say. She definitely isn't talking about the women-centric policies that Rankin was talking about 100 years ago, because it wouldn't play so well with voters. It would seem to be isolating in some ways. But she did actually remind me of Jeannette Rankin in some other ways, mostly in her going all over Montana and talking to voters in tiny towns. That was something that Rankin did and knew that that was a way to appeal to voters. It seems like Kathleen Williams is doing that as well.
EW: As a woman from Montana, you just produced this podcast about Jeannette Rankin, talked to Kathleen Williams and lots of other knowledgeable women in Montana. Why do you think Montana hasn't sent a woman to Congress since Jeannette Rankin more than a hundred years ago?
MS: When I was talking to voters around the state, the opinions were mostly split between women and men. There were a lot of women who said that it was time to have another congresswoman, that it was time to have more political representation. And then a lot of the male voters I talked to seemed to say that this wasn't about gender so much as the capability of a candidate. And they said if there was a qualified woman who would run, they would consider voting for her. But I think that's a notion from Jeanette Rankin's time that did not translate to the 21st century, that women have a role in politics and have a perspective that men don't necessarily have. That doesn't seem to be what most voters that I talked to would say. I think that candidates are cautious to come out as too progressive, too radical, too feminist. That's not something that a lot of Montana voters would look for when they're going to the polls. So there's this careful rhetoric that's coming out.
EW: Jeannette Rankin was running as a radical and a feminist and she managed to get elected. But that message doesn't resonate more than a hundred years later. Mara Silvers, thanks for joining us on Montana Public Radio.
MS: Sure, Eric. Thank you so much.