Underground Groundbreakers of Today #1: Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios

NOTE: After taking a hiatus for a while to decide the best direction for Underground Groundbreakers, I have decided to shift the focus from historical figures to people doing great work today. I explain further in my post below, but I’m very excited about this new direction and the opportunity to speak with people doing work that’s making a difference. Please enjoy!

By now, you likely have heard of rising star and youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has taken the political world by storm first for defeating the powerful long-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, the “party boss” of Queens, and now for giving an inside look at Congress to people who were never interested in politics before through social media.

She didn’t win her campaign alone, of course. She had an entire campaign behind her, as is seen in the recent Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at four progressive women candidates during the 2018 midterm elections. Campaigns like these would not be possible without a strong support system.

I was inspired to take this direction with my blog by watching the inspiring women in Knock Down the House. To have the woman behind the scenes of one of the most important campaigns of recent times be my first profile has been a great honor. She is a great inspiration to anyone who supports progressive policies and candidates, and isn’t afraid of the inevitable challenges of getting them across the finish line. Even though only one of the candidates profiled in the film ended up winning (Ocasio-Cortez), the film offers a vision of what it would be like to have a coalition of progressives from all parts of the country represented in Congress, from the poorest parts of New York City (Ocasio-Cortez) and St. Louis (Cori Bush), to the mining towns of West Virginia (Paula Jean Swearengin), to the area around Las Vegas (Amy Vilela).

I recently had the great privilege of speaking to Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios, who managed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wildly successful campaign for Congress in 2018. You may not have heard her name before, but she was instrumental in Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the primary over incumbent Joseph Crowley in June and in the general election in November. To say that hearing Vigie’s story first-hand, starting with her journey working on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, to managing a campaign for the New York City Council, to eventually managing Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to victory was an inspiration, would be a massive understatement. I am thrilled to be sharing her story and hope that others, whether hopeful candidates or budding managers, can be motivated by her example. [She also happens to be a fellow alum of my alma mater, Smith College!]

Vigie’s path from barely knowing anything about this senator from Vermont to managing arguably the most revolutionary campaign of the 2018 election is fascinating to say the least. While Vigie told me more when we spoke on the phone than I could ever cover here, I will do my best to convey her journey and her amazing accomplishments the way I heard them.

“I didn’t know there were so many of us”: Working on the Bernie Sanders Campaign

You could say, on paper at least, Vigie’s journey to managing AOC’s successful campaign began when she started volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2015. But that leaves out an important part of the story, one that gives a deeper view of why she believes so strongly in and works so hard for the progressive cause. In 2013, Vigie was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), an illness more common today than in years past but still not widely known. I first learned about the CFS as a fan of Golden Girls, in an episode where Bea Arthur’s character, Dorothy, struggles with the illness. As its name suggests, the illness leaves people constantly exhausted for seemingly no reason. Besides greatly affecting her physically, having this illness left Vigie in dire straits financially, eventually leading her to declare bankruptcy. It was this experience, unfortunately shared by many across this country, that drove Vigie to work for real progressive change, particularly in our deeply flawed healthcare system.

Vigie actually heard about Bernie Sanders from, as she put it, her “Baby Boomer mom.” After reading about his platform, which of course included revamping the country’s healthcare system to a Medicare for All model, Vigie felt inspired and looked into volunteering. She eventually came on as a volunteer to collect signatures so that Sanders would appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary. This effort was made difficult by the fact that they could only begin collecting signatures in December 2015, AKA the heart of winter, and there weren’t as many people to ask in Queens as there were in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Add this to the fact that Vigie was still dealing with her chronic fatigue, and this effort alone is admirable.

Working on the Sanders campaign gave Vigie a great deal of experience that would prove invaluable for her later work. She worked with a fundraiser, and, perhaps most importantly, learned from a lawyer how to clean up signatures on petitions–the key to any campaign, particularly a fledgling one. During this time, she also ran the Flushing, Queens office of the campaign.

It was when she was sent to California to work on the campaign that Vigie grasped how meaningful the Bernie Sanders campaign had become throughout the country. She worked tirelessly in two California congressional districts, which are huge geographical areas. They also included some of the reddest parts of one of the bluest states in America, ranged from urban to rural, and included some of the worst air quailty in the state. While all of this may seem like it would have been a challenge, Vigie found fellow progressives among them. At a rally in Bakersfield, north of Los Angeles, surrounded by so many like-minded people, she heard people all saying the same thing: “I didn’t know there were so many of us.”

“This was just the beginning”: Becoming a Campaign Manager

Bernie Sanders did not end up winning the Democratic primary, but Vigie felt no less inspired in her work for progressive change. She knew the excitement she had seen both in New York and California was just the beginning of a movement. After the campaign, she worked for an organization for activists, and ended up becoming campaign manager for Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn activist running for the New York City Council in 2017. She had met Brisport while running the Flushing office during the Sanders campaign. While the campaign did not result in a win, it was successful in that Brisport became the first Green Party/Socialist candidate since the 1930s to win a significant percentage of the vote, 30%. This was Vigie’s first experience as a campaign manager, and the work greatly excited and inspired her. It turned out that it would be just the beginning of her journey managing campaigns.

It is almost hard to remember a time when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not very well known, both in mainstream media and particular in the social media universe. But in 2017 she was almost completely unheard of, except by those who worked with organizations such as the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, and local Democratic Socialist groups (Vigie would organize the Queens branch of the DSA in 2018). Vigie saw Ocasio-Cortez speak at a Medicare for All rally in 2017, and thought she had real appeal and potential. She gave AOC her information, but actually did not get asked to become her campaign manager until February 2018, when the campaign was really in motion.

When Vigie came on board, however, she found she had her work cut out for her. They had no lawyer to check and clean up petition signatures and no print shop for flyers–all with two weeks before the campaign would kick into high gear. Fortunately Vigie’s experience with the Sanders campaign proved extremely valuable: she found a friend of the lawyer she had met during her time with Bernie to help clean up their signatures, and found a union/small business print shop in Queens to use instead of the DNC’s in Boston.

The Primary and Beyond: “We won, now the real work begins”

Vigie and the rest of the campaign worked nonstop all the way up to June 26, 2018, the day of the primary. As the campaign and many of her supporters knew, they were facing an uphill battle: not only was her opponent, Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, he was also the chair of the Queens Democratic Party. Even her most ardent supporters worried that Crowley was just too tough of an opponent, but that did not stop anyone’s enthusiasm or willingness to work hard. The issues Ocasio-Cortez was fighting for were too important to succumb to defeatism.

With Vigie running things, however, the campaign really came together. When June 26 came, they remained as optimistic as possible. Like a good and smart manager should, Vigie made sure that people were able to vote right up to when the polls closed at 9 that night. This was not only the right thing to do, but it was in an effort to make sure that as many people voted as possible, and if Ocasio-Cortez were to win, that the vote totals and margins would be as big as possible.

And, of course, to the surprise of many, particularly those in media who had barely heard of her, she won–and not by a little. She received 57% of the vote (almost 16,000 votes), while Crowley received 42% (almost 12,000 votes)–a margin of 15%. This was earth-shattering, to say the least. Crowley and his followers clearly assumed that a primary challenger, particularly someone as unknown as Ocasio-Cortez, would be easily beat simply by Crowley’s usual supporters in the district showing up. What they didn’t account for was the number of people both in the Bronx and Queens who met Ocasio-Cortez and were energized by her platform and what she stood for. The constant knocking on doors and boots on the ground made all of the difference in her victory.

Things didn’t slow down once Ocasio-Cortez won the primary–on the contrary, they got even busier. The campaign become inundated with press and media requests. The months between the primary in June and the general election in November were just as much work, if not more, than what had come before. The day of the general election, November 6, Ocasio-Cortez won 78% of the vote, with more than 110,000 votes. While it is true that the primary was more consequential in this case because of the level of the person she defeated, Vigie points out that getting over 100,000 in this district was quite an achievement in itself.  

What’s Next? Looking to the Future + the “Unsung Heroes”

Now that the successful Ocasio-Cortez campaign is over and she is making waves in office, what is Vigie up to now? Currently, she does speaking engagements for the Party of European Socialists. She also serves as an adviser to Tiffany Cabán, who is running to be the next Queens District Attorney.

After hearing Vigie’s remarkable and inspiring story, I was eager to hear who motivates her. I was expecting to her to list names of leaders of important movements that came before us, but her answer was actually even better than that. First, she named her parents: her mom taught her the importance of knowing what’s happening in your community, and her dad organized throughout the world. But then she said that she is more inspired by the countless names we never learn, the “unsung heroes.” For me, and for this ongoing project of shining the spotlight on people whose name most people might not know, Vigie’s answer was simply perfect. She encapsulates what I envision in an Underground Groundbreaker, and I don’t exaggerate when I say she is the ideal person to be my first profile of people doing great, important work today.

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

 

 

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) 

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[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.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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!

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[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