FARMINGTON — When Jeannette Rankin entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1917, a women's lavatory had to be installed in the building.

As the first woman in Congress, she faced an uphill battle. Newspapers printed cartoons depicting her as an ugly, old woman and warned that women could soon abandon their babies to follow in her footsteps.

Rankin's decisions in Congress made her an enemy for many and a hero for some.

On Friday, Deborah Blanche an actress, writer and storyteller from Albuquerque will bring Rankin's story to San Juan College in a free performance that is part of the Chautauqua series. Blanche will speak as Rankin and answer questions.

Blanche said she tries to use Rankin's own words, even when answering questions. To help her do this, she has studied videos of Rankin and has spoken with her surviving relatives.

When Rankin first entered Congress, she thought that she would be working for child education and welfare, Blanche said. She didn't expect that she would find herself in the center of a struggle against war. Her first vote cast was against World War I. Fifty-six other members of Congress voted with her.

"I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war," Rankin said in a congressional speech.

In addition to voting against the war, Rankin struggled for women's suffrage.

"She always said that no one could be free until everybody's free," Blanche said.

Equal rights didn't just involve women's rights.

Advertisement

Rankin grew up near the Flathead Reservation in western Montana and that Native American influence stayed with her. She believed equal rights should extend to all races and people.

If Rankin was around today, she'd likely be pleased that there are more women in Congress, though "she'd be disappointed there aren't more," Blanche said. Today, 79 women serve in the House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate. Michelle Lujan Grisham, one of the women in the House, represents New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District.

Rankin would also probably be involved in different struggles across the world, Blanche said.

"I don't think she'd be in her rocking chair," Blanche said.

Up until shortly before her death in 1973, Rankin traveled the world to campaign for the issues she cared about: equal rights and peace.

Blanche said Rankin's perseverance was one of the reasons she chose to portray Rankin. Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against World War II. Even after the country "crucified" her for voting against entrance into World War II, she continued to be a prominent crusader for women's rights and peace, Blanche said.

"Killing more people won't help matters," Rankin said shortly after Pearl Harbor.

The title for Blanche's performance is "The Disarming Dissenter." Blanche said she chose the word disarming as not only a reference to Rankin's pacifism, but also to how well liked she was, even by people with different viewpoints.

"She knew how to form alliances and make bargains," Blanche said.

IF YOU GO
What:Jeannette Rankin
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where:San Juan College Little Theater, 4601 College Blvd.

Hannah Grover can be reached at hgrover@daily-times.com; 505-564-4652. Follow her on Twitter @hmgrover.