Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 8:17 am | Overcast 52º


Jamie Stiehm: Pioneering Spirits Link Jeannette Rankin, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Two remarkable American women in the pantheon of history are actually being recognized right now — and celebrated.

Jeannette Rankin and Laura Ingalls Wilder offer shelter from the present storm. They were born into the first generation after the Civil War with strong minds of their own.

Rankin, a Republican lawmaker from Wyoming, arrived in Congress at the cusp of a crossroads: whether to join World War I. Here was the first woman elected to Congress — a woman from the West and a pacifist. She voted no, one of few to do so. The outsider did not waver.

“I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she declared in 1917.

We joined the Great War — President Woodrow Wilson’s war — a hundred Aprils ago. The United States first entered the world stage, coming to the side of exhausted Britain and France. It was the most devastating, deadly war of all time, with trench warfare against Germany.

Poppies are its enduring symbol, and they were all over London one summer I was there, in 2014, marking the centennial. They honor the Great War over there because a generation of young men died in the fields of Flanders and foreign corners that would be “forever England,” as poet Rupert Brooke wrote.

Opposing a war is never wise politics, and Rankin’s opposition happened even before American women won the vote in 1920. She lost her seat. But by some rhyme and reason, she voted her conscience in Congress again 24 years later, when she voted against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Her independent pacifism made Rankin the only member of Congress to vote against America joining both world wars. In 1968, no longer in office, Rankin opposed the Vietnam War.

The champion for peace was first to carry the banner of womanhood into Congress. It’s still a men's club, but what a pioneer. A rancher’s daughter, Rankin was no dainty female. Male company didn’t intimidate her.

The Library of Congress just celebrated her lifework with the world premiere of a song cycle, “Fierce Grace — Jeannette Rankin.”

Wilder was also a free brave spirit from the West. My book club is meeting here to discuss The Long Winter. After all, she just had her 150th birthday.

Folks, there was no social media out on the Dakota prairie. Pa had his fiddle; Ma had her mending; and the girls studied their spellers. A simple pie might be baking. Reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” poem passed the time.

A cup of tea and a fire kept the family warm. Outside their homestead was a vast expanse that howled and sometimes shrieked in your ears at night.

Meet the Ingalls family — again. Growing up, you may know the gems of American literature that Wilder wrote about her pioneer family. Born in Wisconsin, she began her autobiographical narrative with the comfortingly familiar Little House in the Big Woods. These beloved stories made the small screen.

Wilder’s books are worth revisiting through adult eyes. (Men and boys, try it sometime.) What leapt out to me is how her luminous lines capture the bleak side of the restless westward frontier, too. Ma worked as hard as Pa, leaving a life of store-bought dresses back East.

Wilder was born in 1867, just after the Civil War ended. Her kind older sister, Mary, went blind, and they had two younger sisters. Laura’s goal was to be a schoolteacher.

One long winter nearly froze the family and starved their little town to death. The Long Winter is my favorite book, with its darker hues and scenes close to despair on the edge of survival.

An old Indian warned the settlers in a store, “Heap big snow, big wind.” Blizzards for seven months straight, he told them. He was right. Soon, crossing Main Street was worth your life in a blizzard — if you got lost on the prairie.

The snow piled so high that no trains could reach the town. The community had gone in search of wheat on the frozen “snow-sea.”

Wilder was overcome when she felt the sweet spring wind, saying: “The Chinook was blowing. Spring had come.”

Each Western woman’s story is a gift to the nation’s memory, so we see what our forebears went through every day. They spell inspiration.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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