By Lindsey Burnette
On the morning of January 15, 1968, over 5,000 women from around the United States gathered, filling the streets surrounding the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. One woman, and their leader, Jeannette Rankin, was determined to continue her legacy, her fight for pacifism. Jeannette Rankin is not just any woman, but in 1917, was the first woman ever elected to the House of Representatives . For years, she worked for women’s rights, but once the Vietnam War began and the body count rose higher and higher, Rankin knew that she had to fight for pacifism once again, as she had by opposing U.S. entry into World Wars I and II.
Leading the brigade was Rankin herself, holding a thirty foot long banner with the help of many other women, including Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., renowned leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The banner read “END THE WAR IN VIETNAM AND SOCIAL CRISIS AT HOME!” Beginning at noon, these women began their silent march along Louisiana Avenue, many of them dressed in clad black . New York Times Journalist, Marjorie Hunter, described it well: “Gray-haired grandmothers, chic suburban housewives, miniskirted teenagers–they had come by plane, by train, by bus to petition Congress on opening day to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam” . On this day, Rankin and others decided to put aside their fight for women’s suffrage and to instead fight for the lives of American troops. While the largest gathering of the brigade occurred in D.C., there were smaller demonstrations in cities across the U.S.
The original plan for this peace parade in D.C. was to march all the way to the steps of the Capitol. However, this plan was thwarted by the courts, with a law implemented in 1882, prohibiting demonstrations on Capitol grounds. This forced the women to alter their protest route to go from Union Station to Union Square . The winter weather did not hold up for their protest either. The night before, there was a snowfall, forcing the women to march in freezing weather and two inches of snow. Despite these many obstacles, the women were determined to get their message across to Congress. They were determined to make their voices heard louder than a few representatives in Congress.
This video shows these women marching along the streets towards Union Square:
The main goal of the protest was to convince Congress to withdraw from the Vietnam War. In order to fulfill this goal, the women took a few different approaches. In one approach, which occurred in Los Angeles, CA, 200 women flooded the City Council Chamber, passing leaflets to councilmen and guards. They had originally planned to meet with representatives and to speak at the council meeting, but were denied. Local brigade organizer, Tina Tomash questioned this denial, “How can you do this to women who have taken off from work and left their children in order to meet with their representatives?.” She followed this question with a blatant, semi-harsh statement, “This proves that we have illusions if we think that those in office want to hear us.” Although the group failed at getting the chance to speak in the council meeting, they were determined to have their voices heard, and their opinions known. As they dispersed from the chambers, some of the brigade members left leaflets with the clerks and secretaries, urging them to join the fight for peace and to elect officials that will “end the war, end poverty, end legislative injustice” .
Another approach to fulfill the goal of the brigade occurred in D.C., where Jeannette Rankin and a 15-woman delegation presented an anti-Vietnam War petition to the Speaker of the House, John McCormack, and the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield. Although McCormack promised to refer the petition to the appropriate committee, he made it known that his views completely opposed those in the petition. Yet again, the women’s voices failed to get through to Congress, which is astoundingly clear from the fact that the war continued for seven years after this protest, ending April 30, 1975 . Learn more about the Vietnam War here.
Although the efforts of these women failed, this event is very significant in that women were gathering to fight for something other than equal rights. Many prominent women rallied together, hoping to promote peace in the midst of a horrifically violent, deadly war. These women received much criticism for this fight, from both men and women. The men of course believed that the war was necessary to preserve democracy, while women, primarily feminists, criticized them for not fighting for women’s rights. Jeannette Rankin received a majority of this criticism given she was most in the public eye. Rankin and the other women made a decision to fight for peace and the anti-war cause, knowing they would be looked down upon, their actions condemned by many.
In the years since 1968, this event has been forgotten for the most part. It is most definitely not in the history books. In fact, I was not even aware of who Jeannette Rankin was until I began my research into this project, and given that she was such a significant figure and played such a prominent role in both U.S. and women’s history, I find this odd. The lack of memory of this site/event demonstrates distanciation from it . Since the Vietnam War, people have forgotten how truly horrific it was, and even more so, people have overlooked the significance of the protests against it. Further, this distanciation correlates with how memory can be partial . Even now, not much is remembered about the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, and I had to find multiple sources just to piece together the “full story.” Even so, my story of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and what the women who participated in it stood for is partial, in that I am likely leaving out important pieces, or pieces that others would consider significant.
Although there has been distanciation from the memory of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade itself, there have been commemorations of Jeannette Rankin and what she stood for throughout history. For example, in 1980, a statue of Rankin (designed by Terry Mimnaugh) was placed on the second floor of the State Capitol in Helena, Montana. Later, in 1985, a duplicate of the statue was erected at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. These statues of Jeannette Rankin serve to commemorate, and to sanctify, her legacy.
In addition to the statues, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center was created in 1986 in Missoula, Montana . According to the organization, the mission of this center is “to connect and empower people to build a socially just, non-violent and sustainable community and world.” Overall, the center provides resources and a platform for people to become informed about and to act for peace. This center illustrates how memory can be usable, in that this peace center utilizes the ideals of Jeannette Rankin and her name in order to promote peace .
Overall, Jeannette Rankin and her fight for pacifism were very important in history. The Jeannette Rankin Brigade and the ideals of the women who participated in it will forever live on in the memories of women and men who fight for peace in the midst of chaos and war.
 Information from The First Woman In Congress: A Crusader For Peace by Whitney Wycoff
 Information from Kevin S. Giles book, One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story
 Quote from New York Times article “5,000 Women Rally in Capital Against War” by Marjorie Hunter
 Information from Washington Post article “The Rankin Brigade Detoured to Square” by Judith Martin
 Information and quotes in this paragraph from Los Angeles Times article “Council Refuses to Hear Plea of Rankin Brigade” by Linda Matthews
 Information from New York Times article “5,000 Women Rally in Capital Against War” by Marjorie Hunter; Date for end of Vietnam War from Vietnam War article by History.com Staff
 The concept of distanciation comes from Michael Schudson’s essay, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory”
 The concept of how memory is partial comes from Barbie Zelizer’s essay, “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies”
 Information of commemorations from timeline at http://peace.maripo.com/m_rankin.htm
 The concept of how memory is usable also comes from Barbie Zelizer’s essay, “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies
History.com Staff. “Vietnam War.” History.com, 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history.
Hunter, Marjorie. “5,000 women rally in capital against war.” The New York Times, 16 Jan. 1968, p. 3.
“Jeannette Rankin.” Peace Monuments – Main Page, http://peace.maripo.com/m_rankin. htm.
Martin, Judith. “The Rankin brigade detoured to square.” The Washington Post, 12 Jan. 1968, p. C1.
Matthews, Linda. “Council refuses to hear plea of Rankin brigade.” Los Angles Times, 16 Jan. 1968, p. 3.
Schudson, Michael. “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory.” Sociocultural Perspectives, pp. 346-364.
Wycoff, Whitney B. “The first woman in congress: A crusader for peace.” NPR, 18 May 2011, https://www.npr.org/2011/07/14/135521203/the-first-woman-in-congress-a-crusader-for-peace
Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Review and Criticism, June 1995, pp. 214-239.