Each of the 435 voting members of the House of Representatives has four options on each of the hundreds and hundreds of recorded votes which are called for in every session of Congress. A member can vote “Yay” or “Nay” or “Present.” In addition, a member can choose to not vote at all on any issue.
On Nov. 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. She was a Republican from the state of Montana. Like others who go forward to blaze the trail, she had an awesome responsibility, and with courage, she upheld that responsibility with dignity.
Shortly after Rep. Rankin took office in 1917, Congress took up the debate over U.S. participation in World War I. Women and others who have not always been welcome at the table of power-sharing in this country could learn a lot from Jeannette Rankin.
With the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote, still three years from ratification, women suffragettes were extremely conscious of the conduct and image of women in the public arena. Women wanted Rep. Rankin to go along with the prevailing sentiment for the United States to hurry on and join her European allies who were already fighting “the war to end all wars.” They did not want the first woman in Congress to be perceived as “feminine” and less able than men, to make the tough decisions required to govern a powerful nation. Ms. Rankin opposed the war.
On that fateful day, to the consternation of many women, she was one of only 50 votes in the House, opposing U.S. participation in WWI.
In 1918 when she ran for re-election, Jeannette Rankin, the peace-loving first woman to serve in Congress, was defeated. Proudly, Jeannette Rankin was later a Founding Vice President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
In 1940 Ms. Rankin was re-elected to Congress, this time on an anti-war platform. But following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she once again voted against U.S. entry into a World War. She was the only House member voting against World War II. On that occasion she violated the tradition of silently casting her vote. “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said. “I vote ‘No.'” She did not vote against declaring war on Germany and Italy following their declaration of war on the U.S. Instead, she merely voted “Present.”
An admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, she led more than 5,000 women who called themselves The Jeannette Rankin Brigade, in a march to the U.S. Capitol, opposing U.S. Participation in the Vietnam War.
I am an admirer of Rep. Jeannette Rankin, and those who follow in her tradition, like Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only House member to vote against the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
In late June 2007, the House voted 411-2 (with 11 members voting “Present” and eight members not voting) on a modern matter with profound future war implications. House Roll Call No. 513 was a Concurrent Resolution with the Senate, “calling on the United Nations Security Council to charge Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the United Nations Charter because of his calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Sadly, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first and only Islamic believer elected to Congress did not follow in the tradition of Jeannette Rankin. He voted yes to condemn the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as did all Congressional Black Caucus members, save one: Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the Dean of the CBC did not vote on that flawed measure. Anti-war Presidential candidates Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) cast the two no votes.
I say the resolution was a flawed measure because it condemned remarks by Pres. Ahmadinejad, which he did not make. Yes, he said something harsh and politically un-palatable to the pro-Israel lobby, but he did not call for the murder of Jewish people!
Pres. Ahmadinejad did not incite genocide, calling for Israel to be “wiped off the face of the map,” as his critics claim. What he said in Persian, according to University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, was an old saying of Ayatolla Khomeini of Iran, who called for “this occupation regime over Jerusalem to vanish from the page of time.” As Prof. Cole points out, calling for a “government” to “vanish” is not the same as calling for innocent people to be killed.
The first Muslim in Congress owes as much to his co-religionists to at least study the subject, before joining the stampede, and voting for a war-mongering condemnation of members of his faith in another country. He could have just voted “Present” and not taken one side or the other. Like Rep. Conyers, he could have just not voted at all.
Ironically, the country whose president Rep. Ellison—the first Muslim in the U.S. national legislature—voted to condemn, has had a Jewish member in its legislature, representing 20,000 Jews living in Iran, and he has served even longer than this country’s first Muslim in Congress.
With all the options House members have when casting their votes, and with the precedents of Jeannette Rankin and Barbara Lee, and Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul and John Conyers to guide his way, Rep. Ellison’s betrayal on House Roll Call No. 513 leads me to wonder: What Muslim member of Congress?!