Jeannette Rankin, the first American woman elected as a federal legislator, is probably best known in mainstream American history, if at all, as an ardent pacifist who voted against American military action in both WWI and WWII. I still remember the first time I learned her name. It was the same day I first saw her face. I was on a tour of the US Capitol with the American Legion Auxiliary’s Girls Nation Class of 1995, while spending a week participating in a mock Senate; one of two young women serving as Girls Nation Senators from Virginia.
Looking up at this bronze visage of my American political foremother for the first time, I was awed by even the briefest summary of her accomplishments. I immediately admired her conviction and her place in the history of American feminism. But it took two more decades, four years of service in the US Army, and moving halfway around the world for me to take her down off that marble pedestal and realize what she may have felt the moment she stood on the floor of the US House of Representatives in April of 1916 and declared, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote NO.”
Here in Australia, the end of April means ANZAC Day- a day this nation, who has never declared war on another, pauses to remember and honor those who still paid war’s ultimate cost. ANZAC Day is held every year on April 25th– the anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915 and the start of an eight month campaign in which the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) took staggering losses. Australia & New Zealand went on to suffer the devastation of almost an entire generation of soldiers during World War I. Almost 65% of the all-volunteer ANZACs who deployed during World War I went missing, suffered injury, illness, captivity or death.
The impact of these grim statistics still reverberates throughout the culture today. ANZAC Day corresponds somewhat to Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day in the United States, and yet, from my American, veteran, & expat perspective, it is so much more. It is a day held in sacred trust by an entire culture- not for barbecues & pool parties, but for ritual & remembrance. As a Pagan, I also believe it is no mere coincidence that this observance falls so close to the Southern Hemisphere’s Samhain- another sacred day for honoring one’s ancestors and the dead. These facets of my perspective combine to produce the view that ANZAC Day and its cultural rituals are part of Australia’s inherently deep magic.
The most powerful of all ANZAC Day observances is the ritual of the Dawn Service. Dawn Services are held at ANZAC Memorials in nearly every town across Australia. Even the smallest, remotest townships usually have an ANZAC Memorial, erected after the heart-wrenching losses of the First World War. Before sunrise, the community begins to gather at the memorial. It is a simple ritual echoing the military tradition of the pre-dawn “stand-to,” when soldiers stood silent watch during those vulnerable hours, alert to the threat of possible attack.
At my first Dawn Service, we parked several blocks away due to road closures and walked to our local ANAZC Park. Tears welled up in my eyes as I saw streams of people silently emerging from every direction, intent on paying their respects despite the fact that it wasn’t even 5am yet. The crowd exceeded my expectations, and yet stillness and reverence prevailed. After some brief opening remarks, a few hymns, and the laying of wreaths at the base of the memorial, the “stand to” was called. The bugler played the Last Post, a minute of silence was observed, and then, against the gradually lightening sky, an elderly gentleman with a chest full of medals read the Ode of Remembrance- a stanza of Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen” (1914).
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
As the sun began to rise, the community answered with a rippling murmur: “Lest we forget.” All across Australia, those words quietly echoed into the dawn, uttered by thousands of citizens in hundreds of towns who do not forget.
Before Jeannette Rankin became America’s first female Congresswoman, before she cast that first no vote, she traveled to New Zealand in the latter half of 1915. While most historical accounts of her trip discuss how she worked as a seamstress, studying women’s working conditions and observing a modern Western culture in which women had possessed the right to vote for over a decade, not one source I’ve read so far discusses the momentous events in antipodean history that occurred during her expatriation.
She lived and worked side-by-side with the women of New Zealand, while many of their husbands, adult sons, & fathers were likely ANZACs engaged in the brutally devastating Gallipoli campaign and the other campaigns of WWI to follow. She must have made friends, as I have living abroad. She must have been with them when letters came in from their beloved ANZACs. Did her friends share with her those accounts of the battles? Did she watch as word of the wounded, missing, and dead finally reached the homefront? I cannot imagine she was unaffected by the ANZACs and Gallipoli. Just as I cannot imagine anyone who attends the Dawn Service almost a full century later can remain unaffected by the ANZAC spirit invoked in that space. I am sure, when the time came to cast her vote on the issue of war, she did not forget.
Lest we forget.
If only I could accurately convey the cultural meaning of this phrase with enough passion– could do justice to the power of this three word incantation on the hushed, reverent masses keeping vigil in Australia and New Zealand’s pre-dawn hours every April 25th. If only I could make my own nation understand the value of the profoundly pacifistic nature of spiritual patriotism contained within in the small, quiet ritual of the Dawn Service, as opposed to the tragic and costly aggression of sectarian nationalism loudly idolized in our own halls of government. But until I can, I do not forget.
I do not forget being the child who fell asleep reading, dropped her book off the edge of her bed and inadvertently triggered a flashback in her father; a Vietnam veteran. I do not forget being a young Army officer, myself. Lacing up my own combat boots just after midnight, and heading out to the airfield to check my soldiers’ names off the passenger manifest on their way to battle. I do not forget feeling my first child stir in my womb, while watching one of those soldiers kiss his wife and his own first child farewell, before boarding that pre-dawn plane. I do not forget the sound of my already-deployed husband’s voice on a precious phone call from Kuwait, as we discussed baby names and avoided the topic of his current living conditions. Or the utter bliss of the moment he fell to his knees in grateful tears to kiss my almost full-term, pregnant belly on the day he returned from Iraq in one piece.
I do not forget, for one single day, that a dear friend’s husband is on yet another deployment rotation in Afghanistan at this very moment.
My pacifism, like Jeannette Rankin’s, is born of deeply personal experience, in service to my country. My pacifism, like Jeannette Rankin’s, is inherent in my patriotism and my feminism.
My pacifism is because at the going down of the sun and in the morning, I do not forget.
Kate Brunner is a freelance writer & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is an American expat, living in Queensland, Australia and homeschooling her children, with the world as their classroom. Before motherhood, Kate earned a Bachelor of Arts from Tulane University, while studying Economics, International Relations, & Religion. She served four years as a logistics officer in the US Army, after which, Kate became a doula and holistic birth educator. She is a regular contributor to The Sisterhood of Avalon’s online journal, The Tor Stone and is active in the Red Tent Movement. Kate volunteered in Houston as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas. She enjoys international travel, perfecting her cooking, reading great books, & having fascinating conversations with friends, old or new.