Underground Groundbreakers of Today #3: Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway

The moment when Satya Rhodes-Conway, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, decided she could get into politics was when she was the most nervous: she was about to testify about affordable housing in front of the Madison city council. The feeling is understandable–while the representation of women in US politics is slowly but surely increasing, the overwhelming control of the profession by men sometimes makes it hard for women to break through. 

But then Satya realized something important.

“These are just people,” she thought of the (mostly) men sitting in front of her as she gave her testimony on as crucial of an issues as affordable housing. Once she reminded herself that the people listening to her weren’t necessarily any better or smarter than she was, she instantly felt more empowered and less nervous. This was the moment for Satya when it became possible to one day become an elected official too.

Before running for the Madison city council and eventually for the city’s mayor, becoming the city’s first openly gay mayor, Rhodes-Conway’s only other election was for chair of the Lesbian Bisexual Alliance (LBA) at Smith College, where she majored in biology. While she grew up in an activist household, her parents were mainly interested in specific issues more than electoral politics or state or local government. This background, as well as her scientific training, would come into play once she decided to run for mayor in 2017.  

Born in New Mexico and raised in Ithaca, New York, Satya received her master’s degree in ecology from the University of California, Irvine, after graduating from Smith. After living and working in California, she moved to Madison for a new career opportunity–and never left. In 2002, she got her first taste of campaigning when she volunteered to knock on doors for now-Senator Tammy Baldwin’s House reelection campaign, which she enjoyed doing. Baldwin is something of a hero for Satya, as she was the first openly gay woman elected to Congress, the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Wisconsin, and the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.

Satya became more involved in local politics when a friend running for the Madison city council asked her to manage her campaign, something she had never done before. While her friend didn’t end up winning her election, they ran a campaign they were proud of. Satya’s talent for managing did not go unnoticed, leading her to be recruited by other candidates for office and to becoming more involved in local politics such as the county and school board. Her work on campaigns and local issues in the Madison area put her in touch with city council members, which eventually led to the testimony on affordable housing mentioned earlier.

In 2007, Rhodes-Conway decided she was ready to run for city council when the member in her district was retiring. It was a tough race–there were four candidates running in the non-partisan primary, where she was one of two candidates to advance to the general election. After she won the election and had served on the council for a while, people started asking her to run for mayor. She didn’t want to run at first since she liked the current mayor, but this changed after she decided to step down from her post in 2013 to return to her job as Managing Director of the Mayors Innovation Project, an organization that helps mayors and their advisers “put cities on the high road of equity, sustainability and democracy.” Throughout this time she was continually being asked to run, and finally decided seriously considering it in 2017.

“I’m so far out of my comfort zone, I don’t even know where it is”: Learning on the fly while running an intense campaign

Rhodes-Conway describes her campaign for mayor as even more intense than the one she ran for city council years earlier. She ran a grassroots campaign, making an effort to speak with people all across the city and recruiting volunteers to knock on doors, just as she had for Tammy Baldwin more than fifteen years prior.

Rhodes-Conway won the election in April of this year, with 62% of the vote. Her upbringing to be attentive to issues greatly benefited her in her campaign, which focused on four main issues: affordable housing (not surprisingly), rapid transit, being prepared for climate change, and racial equity. I was particularly interested in her proposed initiatives for climate change, both because it is such an urgent issue and due to her background in science. Before Rhodes-Conway got into office, the city had established a goal of being 100% renewable by 2030, and she is now working to maintain that goal. New initiatives now that she is in office include making a carbon footprint reduction part of community requirements; training apprentices to install solar panels, building more solar city buildings and working with the private sector to fund these projects; and analyzing the impact climate change has had already.

When I asked the mayor what her most important takeaways were from the campaign, she told me, “I’m so far out of my comfort zone, I don’t even know where it is.” For an introvert like Satya, running for political office can be one of the scariest and most energy-draining experiences. She was constantly getting interview requests and had to put herself out there in ways she never had before. But she always stayed focused on why she was running, making sure the campaign was always reflecting what was important to her, and working as hard as possible to produce a campaign that she and her team could be proud of, no matter the outcome.

“I’m just me”: On being a “first” and who inspires her

I asked Mayor Rhodes-Conway to reflect on what it means to her to be the first openly gay mayor of Madison (and one of only a few in the nation), and who her Groundbreakers are. While she certainly recognizes the significance of being the first openly gay mayor of her city (but emphasizing “I’m just me”), what’s more important to her is the significance of that fact to others, particularly LGBTQ members of her community and young LGBTQ people. Seeing themselves represented in political office is extremely important, just as it would be for any minority or historically marginalized group. She also asked the city council to raise the Pride flag in the city for the month of June (Pride Month). The municipal building was also lit up in the traditional rainbow and there was a celebration with rainbow cake. Soon, in a great show of solidarity, the governor of Wisconsin had the flag raised at the state capitol (which also happens to be in Madison).

As for her Groundbreakers, two of them have already been mentioned here: her activist mother and Senator and fellow Smith alum Tammy Baldwin. They helped shape her early political life. Her other Groundbreakers are a group: the women who were in leadership positions at Smith College, something I as a fellow alum also identify with. Just like seeing an openly gay mayor is powerful for LGBTQ youth, seeing women leading organizations is important for women who are developing their voice and sense of self. In short: Representation matters.    

Having the opportunity to speak with Mayor Rhodes-Conway was a great honor for me. Even though she is only my third interview in this project of writing about Groundbreakers of Today, I realize that speaking with these Groundbreakers is as much an opportunity for me to learn as it is to gather information for these blog posts. Hearing the journeys people have taken to where they are today always provides a great deal to think about. What I took away from Satya specifically is the importance of focusing on issues versus individual politicians or even parties in elections. This is a much-needed, refreshing take–particularly in the climate that we are in today, having developed and passionately-held policy positions is going to be extremely important as we approach the 2020 election season, both for president and other offices. Candidates would do well to look to examples set by people like Mayor Rhodes-Conway in how they run their campaigns.

Satya has certainly come a long way from that nervous woman testifying in front of the Madison city council. Though she is a self-admitted introvert, she often had to step outside her comfort zone in order to achieve her goal of being elected to serve her city. And like many other women who feel hesitant about entering the political arena, Satya didn’t see herself ever being elected to office–until she realized she could. I imagine that this is how many of my Groundbreakers–both past and present–may have felt at one time, before they eventually realized that whatever they were fighting for was more important than any fears they may have had. The strength and dedication they all have to what they believe in serves as a continual inspiration to me as I continue this project. 

Underground Groundbreakers of Today #2: Liv Coleman

The 73rd House District of Florida, encompassing Manatee and Sarasota Counties in central Florida, has only had one Democratic representative in the Florida House of Representatives since it was established in 1967. The district elected Donald Trump by 25 points in 2016. Even Democratic residents of the district have barely had any contact with any Democratic candidates or the party itself.

So Liv Coleman knew she was in for an uphill battle when she decided to run as a Democrat to represent the 73rd District in the 2018 midterm elections. Her opponent was Tommy Gregory, a Trump-supporting Republican. Even being aware of all of the strikes against her, she would find that various other factors would make it even more difficult. Despite all of these obstacles, she still ran a campaign that was groundbreaking.

Like many people who ran for office in 2017 and 2018, Liv was motivated to run after Trump’s election and participating in the Women’s March in January 2017. Though she had some experience volunteering for the Democratic Party in the past, Liv didn’t have much experience in campaigning before deciding to run for the House seat. Her background is in education, political science, and East Asian studies, and she is an Associate Professor of Political Science with a focus on Japanese politics at the University of Tampa, as well as the chair of the department. Education has run in her family, and it is such an important issue to her personally and politically that she made it the cornerstone of her platform in her campaign. 

Naming her platform “Make Florida Schools #1,” Liv supported many much-needed improvements to the state’s public school system, including: more funding for higher teacher pay, bringing back public funds that have been diverted to private schools through voucher programs, eliminating high-stakes testing, and tuition-free community and technical college for at least a two-year degree. Making her case even more compelling was the fact that the Manatee County School District is the county’s largest employer. More generally, she ran so that her district would have strong representation for the public good instead of for special interests. These are issues that are (or should be) important to every voter, regardless of party, but unfortunately what should be basic issues beyond debate end up getting politicized in our hyperpartisan system, leaving hardworking people and students in the lurch.

While the Republicans had a number of candidates for the House seat in what became a tough race, Liv was the lone Democrat and had to fight to get any attention at all. At the same time, Tommy Gregory was known to have attended a meet-and-greet hosted by Peter Gemma, a white supremacist who is also involved in the Holocaust denial movement, which was not covered in the press until after there was a lot of public pressure to do so. This is just one example of the lopsided situation in which Liv found herself.

Knowing the odds against her, Liv, along with her assembled campaign team and her political science knowledge, examined the voting data of her district to see where she might make some headway. While the district is certainly heavily Republican, with 50% registered with that party, 25% are registered Democrats, and 25% are not registered with a party–that group, however, tended to lean Republican, as evidenced by the margin of victory Trump had over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The only way for voters to hear Liv’s important ideas was to speak to them directly, both at meet-and-greets and debates–but this, too, would prove to be a struggle. After bringing attention on social media to being excluded from a local discussion forum with Gregory and another Republican candidate, Liv finally got her rightful place in the debate. Her remarks quickly became popular online with people in the community who were similarly frustrated with the political process.

Liv ran her campaign about as cleanly and conscientiously as one could. She was able to outraise even her own expectations, despite being quite outfunded by her opponent. She ran a grassroots campaign on small donations, and accepted no corporate PAC money. She even, surprisingly, received support from Forward Majority Action PAC, a DC-based Super PAC, on the hope that certain Florida suburbs might flip for Democrats in the unstable political climate. She also had a number of important endorsements, including from EMILY’s List and the Planned Parenthood PAC. Liv ran a positive and upbeat campaign, in the spirit of one of her Groundbreaker heroes, the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Growing up in Minnesota, Liv saw how Wellstone fought for everyday people in a positive, grassroots way, which was an important inspiration for her.

Perhaps the starkest demonstration of the hyperpartisan environment in which Liv and many others were running, an issue such as guns, which was a particularly sore one in light of the recent massacre that took place in Parkland, Florida, earlier that year, was kept quiet during this campaign. Even though a poll conducted by the Florida Republican Party revealed that a majority of gun owners were in favor of stronger gun regulations, she was told by so-called “experts” to avoid the issue. She smartly realized that besides being the right thing to do, discussing the issue would also appeal to the suburban moms whose votes she would need to even have a chance. But Gregory was supported by the NRA and seemed to get away with not mentioning it in front of certain audiences.

Liv’s greatest challenge and frustration, besides being a Democrat running in a very red district, was being both a woman and a tenured college professor. While she had no issue calling herself the broader term of “educator,” a local reporter took it too far by calling her a “schoolteacher.” She also heard the all-too-familiar contradictory refrains of “Smile more,” “Smile less,” “Dress up,” “Dress down.” Her youthful look also did not help matters, particularly running in a district with one of the highest populations of people over 65. Despite all these frustrations, Liv did her best to engage with traditionally female-dominated professions, such as teachers and nurses.

On November 6, the results were in, and they weren’t surprising: Gregory won the race with 61.9% of the vote (64,285 votes), while she carried 38.1% (39,614 votes). Even knowing all of the obstacles, this was of course disappointing–but there were reasons for hope. As she puts it, even in a district as red as this one, about 4 out of 10 voters came out for her. Perhaps most interestingly, Liv fared better than both the Democratic candidate for the seat in 2016 and Hillary Clinton in that district. The 2016 House candidate received 34.92% (36,678 votes) in what was a presidential election year, which generally means higher turnout. So for Liv to have performed as she did in a midterm year is actually quite impressive.

What’s more important than the numbers is the groundwork Liv helped lay with her candidacy. She was definitely the underdog, but in many ways that wasn’t the point. What was particularly striking about Liv’s campaign was how the rarity of a Democrat actually running and engaging with people in the district was noticed by the few Democratic voters in the area. In her travels door-to-door in the brutal Florida heat, she heard from people that her campaign was the first contact they’d ever had by a Democratic candidate or the party. So while she was a clear underdog and winning was very difficult, Liv has helped cast a mold for other Democrats who may be inspired to run. She also helped send a message that Republicans should not take certain districts for granted–they may have won this time, but if forward progress continues, there may be closer races in the years ahead.

Speaking with Liv and writing about her experience has forced me to think about my definition of a Groundbreaker. Of course, someone who wins an election despite all the odds, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is easy to define as a Groundbreaker. But Liv’s story is more nuanced. Like many candidates across the country, Liv was just a “regular person”–not a career politician, despite being a political scientist!–who was shaken, like many of us, by the election of Donald Trump and wanted to do her part to try to do something about it. She is a Groundbreaker because, though she did not win, to me, hers is an example of how the parts of campaigning that are less spoken about–meeting with people, putting yourself out there despite long odds against you–are just as important as the more obvious ones like raising money. 

Liv hopes that her campaign can be an example to others like her, particularly her students, who want to do something to fight for change in their communities. Her decision to run despite the electoral history and, more importantly, despite the fact that Republicans usually run uncontested in her county, shows both her courage and the strength of her convictions. It also forced a discussion of issues that wouldn’t have happened in a one-candidate race. As she eloquently puts it, “I am drawn to any person, famous or not, who strives to do what is right, even or especially if it comes at significant personal cost.” She was heartened to find such people in her own community, many of whom likely gave her their votes. While her local Democratic Party organizations were critical to the success her campaign did have, the statewide Florida Democratic Party was not particularly helpful to her. The Florida Democratic Party, as well as statewide Democratic Party organizations in other red states, would be wise to look to her example for how to run future campaigns; with some patience and dedication, one day District 73, and others like it, could turn blue. Her fearlessness to run in the face of overwhelming odds should serve as both an inspiration and a call to action to others who feel outraged at our current system. Her experience shows me that it is worth fighting for what’s right, even if progress doesn’t happen as quickly as we hope. 

If you would like to learn more about Liv, you can follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LivColemanFL/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/LivColemanFL).

Groundbreaker #10: Shirley Chisholm

“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

–Presidential announcement, 1972

If you’ve been following the news this election cycle, or read my recent post on some of the women who were recently elected to Congress, then you know that more women of color than ever are now headed to Capitol Hill this January.

But you may not have heard of (or only recently heard of) the first black woman elected to Congress: Shirley Chisholm. She was in Congress from 1969 to 1983, but her boldness is still having an impact today. Fortunately she is already somewhat known and is getting even more of the recognition she deserves lately (more on that later), but I still consider her an Underground Groundbreaker because she is not as much of a household name as she should be. And we could all stand to learn from her example even in 2018 and beyond.

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn in 1924. Her parents were born in the Caribbean, where Shirley would live for part of her childhood. She and her sisters lived on her grandmother’s farm in Barbados beginning when Shirley was five, getting their education at a one-room schoolhouse. She returned to New York when she was ten, in 1934. She would credit the education she received in Barbados for her ability to write and speak well, and considered herself a Barbadian American throughout her life.

After graduating from Girls’ High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Shirley received her bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1946. She married Conrad O. Chisholm, an immigrant from Jamaica, in 1949. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in elementary education from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1952. After leaving school, she held various positions in early childhood education in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including running day care centers. In the late 1950s and 1960s, she got involved in local politics, including the League of Women Voters. Most of the organizations she volunteered with were mainly run by whites.

Chisholm’s first elected position was as a member of the New York State Assembly from 1965-68. She quickly established herself as a strong legislator, including fighting the English requirement for the state’s literacy test (yes, New York State and City both have quite a history of voter suppression tactics!). Her other accomplishments included expanding unemployment benefits to include domestic workers (of which her mother was one); fighting for black representation on Assembly committees; and the establishment of a program to help underprivileged students receive the remedial education they needed while also being able to attend college.

After her time in the Assembly, Chisholm decided to make a run for Congress in 1968. Using the slogan which would forever describe her (and is the title of her autobiography), “Unbought and Unbossed,” she became the first black woman elected to Congress, as well as the first black representative from Brooklyn. She would go on to be reelected six times and have a very productive career as a representative.

Once in Congress, Chisholm was both innovative and strategic. After being assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, which seemed rather useless to a representative from the nation’s biggest city, Chisholm eventually used the position to help expand the food stamp program, and help create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, which still exists today. In perhaps a controversial move, Chisholm voted for Hale Boggs, a Southern Democrat, over the legendary civil rights leader John Conyers, to be House Majority Leader. She did this in order to gain a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, where she had wanted to be all along. She did not waste this opportunity, eventually becoming the third highest-ranking member of the committee.

In another controversial but arguably shrewd move, in 1972 Chisholm visited George Wallace, the racist, segregationist governor of Alabama who was running for president at the time, in the hospital after an assassination attempt. She used the goodwill from this visit two years later to gain Southern support for her bill to give domestic workers the right to earn minimum wage; Wallace lobbied the required number of Southern congressmen to help the bill pass.

By the time she retired from Congress in 1982 to take care of her second husband who had been injured in a car accident (she and her first husband divorced in 1977, though she kept his name), Chisholm had amassed an impressive resume of accomplishments. In addition to those mentioned above, she served as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus and was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. She was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights. She also was a supporter of increased spending on education and health care, particularly for the poor in cities like New York. She also fought to reduce spending on the military and opposed the draft, and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the development of weapons.

Additionally, Chisholm, being the first black woman elected to Congress, had the great opportunity to set an example for hiring staff. Women made up Chisholm’s entire staff, half of whom were black. This was an important move, as Chisholm personally felt more discriminated against as a woman than as a black person.

In a bold political move, Chisholm decided to run for president in 1972. Though she did not become the nominee, her candidacy was historic in that she was the first black candidate of a major party to run, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. The odds were stacked against her; her campaign was underfunded and she wasn’t taken seriously by the Democratic party as well as black male politicians. As she stated earlier in her career, her being female was more of an obstacle than being black; sexism trumped racism. While she struggled to get access to the ballot in many states, she had a diverse group of supporters. She resented not being taken seriously and being treated only as a symbolic candidate.

Post-retirement, Chisholm continued to remain active throughout the rest of her life. She taught and spoke at colleges, encouraged minorities to be politically active, and was active in various presidential campaigns. She died in 2005 at age 80 in Florida after a series of strokes. Her grave includes her famous motto: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Fortunately for all of us, particularly those who support the progressive movement, Chisholm’s legacy has hardly been forgotten since her death. In addition to books written and documentaries made about her, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Obama in 2015. Although it is a shame that she did not receive the medal during her lifetime, there is hardly anyone more deserving than she of such an award; it is particularly symbolic that it was awarded by the first black president.

Chisholm has also begun to receive more attention recently, particularly in her home city. Earlier this week, First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, also a black woman, announced that a statue of Chisholm will be placed at an entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. There is a grave shortage of statues of women in the city (which McCray is trying to fix with her She Built NYC initiative), so this is welcome news. She will also have a park named after her along Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, which will be the largest state park in the city. And perhaps most exciting, she will be played by star actress Viola Davis in a movie about her life, called The Fighting Shirley ChisholmThese are all really exciting developments that will surely keep Chisholm’s name in the public discourse for years to come.

Though times (and politics) have certainly changed since Chisholm was in Congress, and even since her death almost fourteen years ago, her life and career should be more well known than it is and especially be a model to learn from for young women and aspiring politicians, particularly progressive ones, but for anyone who believes in getting things done for their constituents, not representing moneyed interests. Rejecting corporate money is becoming more mainstream, but has been slow to gain traction since it is so entrenched in our political system. Chisholm, even when seemingly making friends with the enemy, only used those relationships to help the people who elected her. I hope that the women, particularly those of color, who are about to start their terms in just a few weeks, remember her example when navigating their way through the halls of Congress. It’s certainly still not easy being a woman or a person of color (or both) in our society or especially our political system, but the boldness and courage of Shirley Chisholm should remind us all, and those elected, to never forget who, and most importantly, what values, you represent.     

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Shirley Chisholm interesting and/or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles, websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Chisholm’s autobiograhy, Unbought and Unbossed: https://amzn.to/2KOS9m7

1974 documentary on Chisholm: https://amzn.to/2KNzoPO

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Chisholm

House bio: https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10918

Profile from National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm

Profile from Equality Archive: http://equalityarchive.com/history/the-first-black-woman-presidential-candidate/

Article from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/unbought-and-unbossed-when-black-woman-ran-for-the-white-house-180958699/

Gothamist article on Chisholm statue: http://gothamist.com/2018/11/30/shirley_chisholm_statue_nyc.php?utm_source=WNYC+%2B+Gothamist&utm_campaign=9e74c67e4f-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_65dbec786b-9e74c67e4f-85709165&mc_cid=9e74c67e4f&mc_eid=811492602c

JSTOR article on the importance of Chisholm’s presidential campaign: https://daily.jstor.org/the-significanc-of-shirley-chisholms-presidential-campaign/

NYTimes obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/03/obituaries/shirley-chisholm-unbossedpioneer-in-congress-is-dead-at-80.html

[Image from: http://www.pbs.org/the-contenders/people/shirley-chisholm/%5D

 

 

Groundbreaker #9: Buck O’Neil

“People say baseball’s dead. Baseball doesn’t die. People die. Baseball lives on.”

Continuing my baseball theme of this blog started with Josh Gibson, today I’ll be exploring the life and career of Buck O’Neil, another Negro League-era player. Unlike Gibson, however, he had the distinction of becoming the first black coach in Major League Baseball.

Buck O’Neil, born John Jordan O’Neil in 1911 in the Florida Panhandle, grew up surrounded by racism and discrimination, which he would experience throughout his life. Because segregated Florida only had four high schools just for black students at the time, O’Neil wasn’t able to attend school. But he was soon able to attend a college in Jacksonville after working in a celery field with his father, where he lived with relatives and finished high school and two years of college credits.  

After his time in college, O’Neil started playing baseball semi-professionally in 1934 and barnstormed playing in interracial exhibition games.” He was soon discovered and in 1937 signed with the Memphis Red Sox, a newly established team in the newly established Negro American League. In 1938, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.

O’Neil had a respectable career as a first baseman in the Negro Leagues when he had the opportunity to play, with a lifetime average of .283. He couldn’t play from 1943-45 because he was serving in the Navy in World War II. He was also part of the Monarchs World Series championship team in 1942. He played regularly until 1951, but also served as manager of the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955. Under his leadership, the team won two league titles, but unfortunately the League was on its last legs due to the exodus of black players into the Major Leagues. [For more background on the Negro Leagues, be sure to check out my earlier post on Josh Gibson.]

After the 1955 season, the owner of the Monarchs sold the team. O’Neil resigned as manager of the team and was hired as a scout for the Chicago Cubs in the major leagues, where he signed another black player and future Hall of Famer, outfielder Lou Brock. O’Neil was tasked with finding talent in black high schools and colleges throughout the country (see Kansas City Star article).

In 1962, O’Neil made history by being named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs. He had been an unofficial coach, but the Cubs officially named him a coach because many umpires didn’t approve of his being in the dugout.While this was a major accomplishment, it was dampened somewhat by the fact that he was not a base coach during games and not part of the Cubs’ “College of Coaches” system, which rotated a few men through the role of manager. [The first black manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, would not be hired until 1975.] At first O’Neil did not recognize the significance of his being the first black coach, but later understood when he saw his name in the papers throughout the country. Despite this, he acknowledged that “progress in organized baseball was painfully slow” and “still is” (see Kansas City Star article). O’Neil stayed with the Cubs until the 1980s, when he took a scouting job for the Kansas City Royals in 1988, and awarded the title of “Midwest Scout of the Year” in 1998.

It was perhaps his post-playing/coaching/scouting career where O’Neil made the biggest impact on baseball history. After sitting for interviews describing the Negro Leagues for Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, O’Neil was one of the leaders in opening the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City. He was the honorary board chairman of the museum until his death in 2006. O’Neil was also part of the 18-member Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000, helping six Negro League players to be elected to the Hall. Sadly O’Neil himself was never inducted, despite being nominated to a special ballot that honored Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but he spoke at the induction ceremony for those Negro League players who were elected in July of that year.

O’Neil died at the age of 94 in August of 2006 of heart failure and bone marrow cancer. He has received many posthumous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in December 2006. The Baseball Hall of Fame awarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, an award that would be named after him. The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be given once every three years “to honor an individual who enhances baseball’s positive image on society, who broadens the game’s appeal, and whose integrity and dignity are comparable to the namesake of the award” (see Baseball Hall of Fame website). So far it has only been presented to three other people besides O’Neil himself: longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, catcher and announcer Joe Garagiola, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson.

At the end of his life, Buck O’Neil easily could have been bitter about the many missed opportunities in his life: the segregation of his childhood preventing him from going to a local high school; never getting to play in the Major Leagues; being named a Major League coach but not having that mean much; and not being inducted into the Hall of Fame even though he was on the committee that chose the inductees. But until the end of his long life, O’Neil was everything but bitter; he was charming and entertaining and always seemed happy, as he did at the 2006 Hall of Fame ceremony.

One touching story about O’Neil’s life was the friendship he developed late in life with Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro, who was a star in Japan and came to the Major Leagues in 2001, love learning about baseball history. He visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City when his team, the Seattle Mariners, were in town playing the Royals. After O’Neil died, Ichiro sent a donation to the museum in memory of him (see ESPN article). This friendship shows O’Neil’s undying openness and kindness towards younger players through all stages of his life.

As a baseball fan I had heard Buck O’Neil’s name in passing, but never knew much about him until I started researching for this post. While it is clear that O’Neil wasn’t outwardly resentful about the way his life went, it seems to me that baseball as a whole didn’t give him the treatment and recognition he deserved. He may not have deserved to be in the Hall of Fame purely on the strength of his numbers, but surely his many other contributions to the game would warrant him an honorary spot somewhere. As a walking encyclopedia of baseball and particularly the Negro Leagues, it is a real shame and a missed opportunity that his knowledge wasn’t appreciated and honored more. He did a good job on his own by helping open the museum and helping elect former Negro Leaguers into the Hall (even though he wasn’t chosen himself), and by appearing on Ken Burns’ documentary, but this seems like a bare minimum.

Although baseball is more diverse than it was during most of O’Neil’s lifetime, as time goes on both players and fans will know less and less about pioneers like O’Neil who helped make the game what it is today. I just hope there are others out there who thought to record some of his stories so they are not lost to time.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Buck O’Neil and the history of African Americans in baseball interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_O’Neil

Stats on Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=oneil-000buc

Robert Bluestein, “The 20 Most Obscure ‘Firsts’ in Baseball”: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1411064-the-20-most-obscure-firsts-in-baseball#slide15

Rustin Dodd, “Buck O’Neil and the Cubs: Kansas City icon left a legacy in Chicago”: https://www.kansascity.com/sports/mlb/kansas-city-royals/article110949822.html

Buck O’Neil Award, Baseball Hall of Fame: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/awards/890

http://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/why-buck-oneil-still-doesnt-have-a-baseball-hall-of-fame-plaque/qi0c30oiqfa71ooi69ooazme2

https://www.theroot.com/quote-of-the-day-buck-o-neil-on-love-1790874584

More on Ichiro: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/22624561/ichiro-suzuki-return-seattle-mariners-resolve-internal-battle

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America: https://amzn.to/2R85rw1

Buck O’Neil’s autobiography, I Was Right On Time: https://amzn.to/2r1VuVG

O’Neil’s speech at Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtE2I6jsung

 

Groundbreaker #8: Florence Price

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” from a 1943 letter to Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky from Florence Price, trying to convince him to program her music 

As I noted in my recent post about black cellist Donald White, where I discussed the lack of black and Latino musicians in orchestras, the lack of women in the classical music world is also a real issue. In today’s post I will be discussing a composer who fits into both categories: Florence Price, the first African American female composer to have a piece debuted by a major American symphony. As a musician, I had heard her name only in passing, but when the good news broke this week that her catalogue will now be published by major classical publisher G. Schirmer/Music Sales Classical, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally learn more about her.

Florence Beatrice Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a dentist and a music teacher. Her father was the first black dentist in town, and rumored to have been the governor’s dentist. Her mother was her first music teacher. The family was successful and respected in the community despite the racial tensions in the South, and also traveled to Europe (see Baranello article, The New York Times). Price gave her first piano performance when she was four years old, and published her first piece when she was eleven.

At fourteen, she had finished high school at the top of her class and went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the only music schools that admitted African-Americans at the time, where she studied the piano and the organ (see New Yorker article). As racism was not limited to the South, Price passed as Mexican when she first started at the conservatory to avoid painful encounters. She began studying composition, having the great opportunity to study with the conservatory’s president, writing a string trio and a symphony (see Baranello article, The New York Times). It would be this teacher who would encourage her to incorporate elements of her black southern musical culture into her own music. She graduated with honors in 1906, with an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.

After leaving Boston, Price returned to Arkansas to teach and then moved to Atlanta to assume a position as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, an historically black university. After marrying attorney Thomas Price in 1912, the couple moved back to Little Rock, but fled to Chicago after a lynching took place in 1927. It was this move to one of the centers of American music that would turn out to be the most important in her career.

Price studied at various schools throughout Chicago including the University of Chicago, where, in addition to music, she studied languages and the liberal arts. She improved her composition skills while studying with a number of influential teachers in the city at the time, and turned out four more piano pieces in 1928.

In 1931, Price became a single mother to her two daughters after she and Thomas divorced after he became abusive (see New Yorker article). She played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote songs for radio ads under a pseudonym. She moved in with a fellow black pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds, who introduced her to black luminaries of the time, writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson. Anderson sang a Price arrangement in her famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

In 1932, Price had her first lucky break when she won first prize ($500) for her Symphony in E Minor, her first symphony, in a competition (and third prize for her Piano Sonata). This led to the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Frederick Stock, one of Price’s few supporters during her lifetime, premiering her symphony in 1933, making Price the first African American female composer to have a piece played by a major orchestra.

The Symphony in E Minor is a good example of Price’s musical style. While she follows the overall European classical style, Price incorporates elements of black southern culture, particularly church hymns, using the rhythms of how they would have been sung, such as call and response. Her music is a lovely blend of traditional European classical and blues, giving it a truly American feel. She stated that her goal for another one of her symphonies was “a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day” (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

Unfortunately, due to both her gender and race, Price didn’t haven’t as much success and fame as she should have after that premiere. She wrote many other works for orchestra (including concertos), chorus, voice and piano, solo piano and organ, and chamber ensembles. She also wrote arrangements of many Negro spirituals. She was also inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1940. But once she died of a stroke at the age of 66, her work was largely forgotten until relatively recently.

While it is unfortunate that Price did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, recent events have helped cement her legacy for future generations. In 2009, a large collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned house, which turned out to be her summer house in a town outside of Chicago. These works and papers are now housed at the University of Arkansas library. This lucky find was the start of Price gaining back some well-deserved attention. Musicians have been performing and making recordings of her music, including her symphonies and violin concertos (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

And in an even more exciting development, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as of this week she finally has a widely respected publisher! This week, publisher G. Schirmer announced that it has acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue. This is a step in the right direction for classical music, which is infamous for its lack of inclusion of non-male, non-white musicians. We can hope that in addition to celebrating composers who were not properly acknowledged during their time, current musicians/composers outside the “circle” will also be welcomed in and properly recognized.

A discussion of a composer like Florence Price, just like the discussion of a musician like Donald White, brings up important issues of race, gender, and inclusion both in the world of classical music and American society in general. The first, which should be relatively obvious, is the double struggle Price dealt with not only as an American or even as a musician, but as a composer, a profession where it is particularly difficult to succeed and make a living: being both female and black. She said herself in one of her letters to Koussevitzky in 1943, “To begin with I have two handicaps–those of sex and race.” She also said, rather simply, “I would like to be judged on merit alone” (see Music Sales Classical announcement). Also, let’s recognize that she accomplished all that she did while raising two kids on her own!

Price’s story, which is sad enough, makes me wonder: how many other composers (and musicians, just like the story of Donald White) were there just like her, who we likely will never hear about? Even since the premiere of Price’s symphony 85 years ago, very few black female composers (or black male composers, for that matter) have had their music performed by major orchestras or elsewhere.

The lack of exposure given to female and non-white composers is one that continues to be debated in programming departments of major orchestras. As American society slowly begins to accept that our mainly white, male “heroes” were seriously flawed, and that minorities were essentially erased from history, we need to do the same in the arts (see more in New Yorker article). Major orchestras, who have the majority of the press, should seriously consider planning programs devoted solely to the work of minority composers, in their main concert program schedule. As Micaela Baranello explains in her profile of Price, the Boston Symphony programmed one of her string quartets in a community concert. While this is better than nothing, and a great opportunity both for raising Price’s profile and bringing her music to audiences who might not normally hear her, it’s still not good enough; orchestras like Boston need to consider performing her symphonies at Symphony Hall as part of their regular concert series.   

As students going through public school, we all could have benefited from learning about the lesser known characters in history, who were generally non-white and sometimes non-male. Similarly, as a musician and musicology student myself, I know that learning more about composers like Florence Price would have been not only inspiring, but would have given me a more diverse and accurate account of who actually participated in the musical sphere. The rediscovery and recent publishing of Price’s music is a great achievement that should be celebrated; but I only hope it is the first of many to come.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Florence Price and the lack of recognition of minorities in music interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. I’ve also included a couple of links to her music.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Price

Announcement by G. Schirmer of acquiring Price’s catalogue: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/news/3894

Profile on her and the recent performances of her music by Micaela Baranello in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/arts/music/florence-price-arkansas-symphony-concerto.html

New York Times article on the G. Schirmer acquisition: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/arts/music/florence-price-music-publisher-schirmer.html

Profile in The New Yorker by Alex Ross: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price

Bio from Music Sales Classical website: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/short-bio/Florence-Price

WQXR radio program on Price: https://www.wqxr.org/story/271521-musical-biography-florence-beatrice-price/

Her music:

Symphony in E Minor & Concerto in One Movement: https://amzn.to/2Kh2KG8

Violin Concertos: https://amzn.to/2TkTEMy

[top image from Southern Arkansas University website]

 

A Special Groundbreakers Post: Celebrating the Women Elected to Congress

If you’re in the US (and even if you’re not), you may have heard that we had midterm elections this past Tuesday (and hopefully participated!). While the results were far from perfect for progressives, and some races still haven’t been called, there was still plenty worth celebrating. Over 100 women were elected to Congress, an historic high, many of whom broke the usual mold of white, straight, and Christian. I’m thrilled to have the rare opportunity to share the stories of Groundbreakers who are making history at this very moment!

I won’t be profiling every women who was elected, but there are a few historic milestones of these women elected to Congress that are particularly exciting:

Youngest Woman: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY)

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[image from Ocasio2018.com]

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history earlier this year by defeating 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of both the Bronx and Queens boroughs of New York City. Crowley was part of the Democratic leadership in Congress and the 4th-ranked House Democrat, and was also known as “The King of Queens” for how powerful he was in his district. Although her victory was assured since she’s in a heavily Democratic district, Ocasio-Cortez officially made history by becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at age 29.

Ocasio-Cortez, like many of the other women I will discuss here, is quite progressive compared to most establishment Democrats–she is a democratic socialist, more similar to Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats but is actually independent. She supports Medicare for All, tuition-free college, going green to help fight climate change, among other left-leaning positions.

What was particularly inspiring about her campaign is that she took no corporate money (an increasingly popular position even amongst some establishment Democrats), only taking small-dollar donations similar to Sanders’ average $27 donation. She also spoke with voters individually, going door to door in a real grassroots effort. This was part of what made people vote for her over Crowley, who assumed he had the district in the bag since he had for so long, and was essentially phoning it in. The district, which is heavily Latino, had had enough of someone who wasn’t really representing them, and Ocasio-Cortez, who was working as a bartender, was sick of seeing what was going on in politics, which made for the perfect storm. And, best of all, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind! She promises to be an excellent representative for her district, and I count myself among the people who look forward to seeing what she will accomplish in this important role.

First Muslim Women: Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ilhan Omar (MN) 

HC2KSgAT_400x400

[image from Tlaib’s Twitter account]

An incredible milestone has been reached by the first two Muslim women being elected to Congress this year. Keith Ellison of Minnesota became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, but 12 years later we finally have the first Muslim women: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Rashida Tlaib is of Palestinian heritage and grew up in Detroit. After earning her law degree, she got involved in politics and won a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. She ran in 2018 to represent the 13th District of Michigan and won the primary, running unopposed in the general election. She not only became one of two Muslim women elected to Congress, but also the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib holds progressive positions. She is also a democratic socialist, and supports Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. She also believes in abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), due to their participation in separating families at the US-Mexican border. And she is even more outspoken than Ocasio-Cortez, and not afraid to raise her voice. She will undoubtedly will be a voice for the interests of the people in her district, much of which is African-American and poor and needs the improvements that Tlaib is seeking.

img_2018-03_Du-Nord_First-Person_Ilhan-Omar_1_G.jpg

[image from Minnesota Monthly]

Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia. After fleeing with her family to Kenya during the Somali Civil War, she moved to Arlington, VA, then to Minneapolis. She learned English quickly, participated in local politics with her grandfather, and became a US citizen in 2000 at age 17.

After working as a community nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota, she became involved in politics, serving as campaign manager for candidates for the Minnesota State Senate and Minneapolis City Council. She was a Senior Policy Aide for for the City Council member. She later became Director of Policy & Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, which helps women in East Africa get civic and political leadership positions.

In 2016, Omar became the first Somali American legislator in the country by winning her election for the Minnesota House of Representatives. She won the seat in Congress, replacing Keith Ellison who has since been elected Minnesota Attorney General, becoming the first Somali American elected to Congress. She supports many of the positions already described. As a member of a heavily Somali part of Minneapolis, she has a promising career ahead of her politics.

First Black Women from New England: Ayanna Pressley (MA), Jahana Hayes (CT) 

While there have been a number of black women elected to Congress, many states have not yet elected any. Enter Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and Jahana Hayes from Connecticut.

ayanna-headshot

[image from Boston.gov]

Ayanna Pressley was born in Chicago and attended Boston University, but never received her degree. She worked as a district representative for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, eventually becoming his political director and senior aide. She also served as political director for Senator John Kerry.

In 2009, Pressley was elected to the Boston City Council, the first woman of color to do so. She was reelected four more times. She ran for the US House seat against Michael Capuano, who was also relatively progressive, but won the primary in September despite the polls favoring Capuano. She ran unopposed in the general election and became the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, in a seat once occupied by President John F. Kennedy. She represents a district that is racially diverse, and supports universal health care, defunding ICE, and fighting sexual violence as a victim of it herself. She has already had a very impressive career in political service and is now on the national stage, where she is sure to shine.

images

[image from EMILY’s List]

Jahana Hayes’ story has a true “American dream” story if that still exists anymore. She was born to a drug addict and grew up in public housing in Connecticut, and got pregnant when she was 17. She went to school to become a teacher and became a government and history teacher in her hometown of Waterbury. She was named Connecticut Teacher of the Year in 2016, which earned her media attention to speak about education in America.

She won the Democratic primary in August and the general election, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from her state. In addition to supporting universal health care, she also supports stricter gun control, as she experienced first hand the effects of guns in her poor neighborhood. Hayes’ background in education will make her an excellent representative for people she has already gotten to know well.

First Native American Women: Deb Haaland (NM), Sharice Davids (KS)

Last but certainly not least, it is a shame but perhaps not surprising knowing our history that it has taken until 2018 for Native American women to be elected to Congress, but now it has finally happened!

A3wr5AA1_400x400

[image from Haaland’s Twitter account]

Deb Haaland of New Mexico was born in Arizona and is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She received both her bachelor and law degrees (in Indian law) from the University of New Mexico. She’s done a ton of work with Native American people, including serving as a tribal administrator and the state vote director for them in Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. She became the chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party in 2015, during which time the Democrats got back control of the state House. After that, she decided to run for the seat in the 1st district and won the primary in June, winning the general election. She believes in clean energy, particularly as a Native American who went to the protest at Standing Rock. She also has similar progressive positions to the other women described here.

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Sharice Davids of Kansas, besides being Native American, has the additional distinction of being the first openly gay representative from Kansas. A member of the Ho-Chunk nation, Davids received her law degree from Cornell. After a brief stint as a mixed martial arts fighter, Davids held a number of different positions, including directing community and economic development at a reservation, owning a coffee shop, and working as a White House Fellow in the Department of Transportation between the Obama and Trump administrations. She defeated a Sanders-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary, and the incumbent Republican in the general election. Her eclectic background will make her someone to watch as she heads to Washington.

Roundup: Looking Ahead to a Brighter Future

The great thing about all these women is that, while they have different specific issues that they care about, they are all progressive and see this country as more diverse and inclusive than some on the other side would have us believe. But what’s also great is that these women are from all backgrounds and walks of life, which is exactly what our Congress needs more of. Unlike the typical representatives and senators of the past who all went to the same few prep schools, Ivy League schools, etc., these women could not have more different upbringings and educations. They are reflective of what America truly is, not what only the privileged can afford.

We still have a long way to go in the fight for more equitable representation, but I hope these results would make Pauli Murray proud.

[top image from The New York Times]

Groundbreaker #6: Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress

“I may be the First woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”

When you think of “women’s firsts,” who do you think of? Names like Sandra Day O’Connor (first to become a Supreme Court justice), Amelia Earhart (first to fly solo across the Atlantic), or Indira Gandhi (first and so far only to serve as Prime Minister of India), are some popular examples. [And maybe someday the first to be president will be on this list, but I digress…]

But you may not think of Jeannette Rankin, the first elected to Congress. As I hope to show on the eve of these crucial midterm elections (Vote November 6th!), Rankin should be just as well-known as these other famous firsts.

I first remember hearing of Jeannette Rankin in the charming picture book Lives of Extraordinary Women by Kathleen Krull, and occasionally saw her name pop up in history books or articles. She has been on my list of Groundbreakers to profile since I started this project, but she moved up the list this week after I listened to the WNYC podcast that questioned her sexuality.

Where does one start with Jeannette Rankin? Besides being the first woman elected to Congress, she is still the only woman elected to Congress from the state of Montana (more on that later). She was also the only member of Congress to vote against US participation in both World Wars, and one of the only suffragists elected to Congress (see US House History site). But she also had some views that seem less than stellar today. Regardless, she was a true rebel who was never afraid to speak her mind on important issues, even as late as the Vietnam War when she was in her late 80s.

Jeannette Pickering Rankin was born near Missoula, Montana in 1880, while Montana was still a territory. She was the first of six children, including a brother, Wellington Rankin, who was the attorney general of Montana and on the Montana Supreme Court. Growing up in Montana was complicated; while it was on the frontier, which meant that men and women were often equal in labor, women still did not have the right to vote or do much of anything else politically. Her worldview was much more aligned with that of big cities, where she would later end up.

After graduating from the University of Montana in 1902 with a degree in biology, Rankin moved to San Francisco and became a social worker. She then moved to New York and enrolled in what is now the Columbia University School of Social Work. Later she moved to the state of Washington where she continued in social work, attended the University of Washington, and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. After working as an organizer for the New York Women’s Suffrage Party and as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she enjoyed the victory of seeing Washington State giving women the vote in 1910. Rankin soon helped win women’s right to vote in her home state in 1914.

Rankin’s victories in the women’s suffrage movement helped propel her to victory when she ran for Congress in 1916 as a Republican, realizing in her own small way her belief that the government needed women in order to function properly. She served on the Woman Suffrage Committee, among others, introducing the Nineteenth Amendment, which was finally ratified in 1920. She proudly proclaimed, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”

But it was early in 1917, just after she started her term, when she entered the national stage by voting against US involvement in World War I, the first vote cast by any woman in Congress. She was part of a group of 56 members of Congress who voted against entering the war (see Collins, America’s Women). She later stated, “I felt that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” She became just as devoted to pacifism and peace for the rest of her life as she was to the suffrage movement. This stance did not help her politically, as she was not reelected in 1918, but she never shied away from what she believed (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).

Her persistence eventually paid off, as she ran for Congress again and won in 1940, when she was 60. And almost poetically, yet another war started around the time she took her seat, this time World War II. After the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Rankin was the lone no vote. She explained her vote: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send someone else.” Her decision was massively unpopular, even more so than her vote against entering the first World War more than 20 years earlier. As a result, she again served only one term, leaving Congress in 1943. The backlash to both of her no votes was somewhat ironic, as Rankin had been elected on a pacifist platform; but once Pearl Harbor was attacked, most people’s views changed.

But Rankin was hardly finished making her mark. She lectured on world peace and often traveled to India, studying the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, perhaps the world’s most famous pacifist. In 1967, at the age of 87, she led a march against the Vietnam War in Washington, consisting of five thousand women dressed in black. She thought, incredibly, of running for a third term in Congress, but died at 92 before she could entertain the possibility (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women).

Rankin’s personal life was also unusual for her time. She never married, as she always wanted to remain independent (see Krull, Lives of Extraordinary Women). More recently, some have wondered if she may have been a lesbian. There is not much to back this up other than close friendships she had with women in her lifetime. But what we can say for sure is that her life of protest and speaking out against authority set her apart from most women of her time (hear more in Nancy podcast).

Like any figure, Rankin harbored some views that would be less than popular today. Despite her devotion to women’s equality, particularly in voting, she did not extend that same level of dedication to black women. This flaw was not unique to her, as many of the early suffragist leaders were mainly looking out for white, relatively privileged women (see Constitution Center article). Additionally, a more controversial view she had, which contributed to her vote against World War II, was that Roosevelt was trying to get the US into the war, and that the attack on Pearl Harbor was provoked (see Cullen-DuPont, American Women Activists’ Writings). There are some who believe this to be true, but on the whole it is an unpopular view.

While Rankin’s name is not a household one like some of the others I named above, her legacy is still making a mark today. She is still the only woman elected to Congress from Montana, but another woman from Montana is trying to change that this election. Kathleen Williams, a Democrat, is running for Montana’s one congressional seat against incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte, best known for bodyslamming a reporter who dared ask him a question. Williams is well aware of her potentially historic campaign, stating recently that she hopes to be Rankin’s “long overdue successor” (see Missoulian article). Ironically, Rankin was elected by a more “liberal”, pacifist (frontier) Montana than exists today, but perhaps women (and men) in Montana will recognize the opportunity presented to them and make her the second woman sent to Congress from their state in more than 70 years.

Despite some flawed and controversial views, Rankin’s dedication to her efforts even in old age is admirable. She easily could have gone along with her male Republican colleagues while in the House, but she chose, as she did throughout her life, to strike out on her own. Her fierce independence is an important example to young women who may be shy to fight for causes that are meaningful to them. The lack of women in Congress is still a problem today. We will see on November 6th whether the road she started on almost a century ago will be continued.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Jeannette Rankin interesting and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

WNYC podcast Nancy, “The First Queer Woman in Congress”: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/jeannette-rankin-united-states-of-anxiety

Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannette_Rankin

Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (And What the Neighbors Thought), by Kathleen Krull

Entry on House History, Art & Archives website: https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, by Gail Collins

“Jeannette Rankin’s war”, National Constitution Center: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/jeannette-rankins-war

American Women Activists’ Writings, edited by Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Rankin Foundation, Women’s Scholarship Fund: https://rankinfoundation.org/

Article on Kathleen Williams’ campaign for Congress in Montana: https://missoulian.com/news/local/a-unique-spin-in-democratic-congressional-candidate-forum/article_af43490d-6cfb-5c38-9833-5e2a13d891d0.html

Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, Gretchen Woelfle

A Woman in the House (and Senate), Ilene Cooper

Jeannette Rankin, America’s Conscience, Norma Smith