What is Veterans Day? It’s a day to honor all veterans, regardless of the war they fought in. Originally called Armistice Day, it commemorated Nov. 11, 1918, the day “The Great War to End All Wars” — later renamed World War I — was over. If you’re a faithful reader, you know my particular lens is “Where are the women?” Most of the women who played pivotal roles in that ghastly conflict are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Who are some of these WWI MIA gals? Let’s start with three notables: Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg; the U.S. coterie of “Silent Sentinels”; and Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana.
• Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg — Sophie’s story reminds me of the perennial trick question, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” The answer’s obvious … except it’s not. Next time someone asks you that question, hit them back with: “Julia and Ulysses are buried there!” When it comes to the missing women of history, you often have to dig deeper. Conversely, I doubt if anyone will ever ask you, “Whose assassination started World War I?” If they do, you can say Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie Hohenberg.
During their visit to Sarajevo, Duchess Hohenberg was assassinated along with her husband on that fateful day in 1914 while riding in a topless and horseless carriage. Sophie was the “hapless” wife of Franz Ferdinand. I couldn’t resist that groan-worthy play on words since Sophie was of a much lower rank than her husband, the heir presumptive to the Hapsburg throne. Sophie was a mere lady in waiting, their courtship was scandalous, and dear Franz was a fervent sort who wouldn’t give Sophie up. To marry, they had to agree not to pass the Hapsburg scepter to any of their issue.
Imagine: you’re riding along in a tense urban setting, you are with your husband, and suddenly a blast. You’ve been hit in the stomach by a bullet. Your husband is next. He leans over; his last words to you are, “Don’t die, Sophie. Stay alive for the children.”
Sophie was forbidden to attend most public appearances. Then, a change was made in the parade route due to an earlier bomb, causing the drivers to back up. While they were reversing, a young Bosnian, Gavrilo Princip, was sitting in a café not expecting to his enemies. He saw the couple from his window seat, grabbed his pistol, ran out, and shot both the Duchess and the Archduke. The couple died en route to the hospital. Her death — or even that she was there at all — is never mentioned. So, what is Sophie, chopped liver?
• The Silent Sentinels — President Woodrow Wilson had initially been against America entering the war, and mainly due to his wife Edith’s strong influence, also exceedingly against American women’s suffrage. Eventually, the United States joined the Great War in 1917 with the express purpose, as Wilson said, of saving democracy for Europe. For American women who could not participate in their own country’s democracy, the hypocrisy of that statement was too much to bear. Dozens of intrepid American suffragists, led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, could not remain silent any longer. They decided to picket the White House to bring attention to the issue; picketing the White House had never been done before. The picket signs read “Mr. President: What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” The most gut-wrenching sign read, “It Is Unjust to Deny Women a Voice in Their Government When the Government is Conscripting Their Sons.” Indeed.
• Jeannette Rankin — Finally, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana is one of the most important unsung women of the World War I era. She was the first woman to hold federal office. As of 2021, Rep. Rankin is still the only female member of Congress from Montana! Consider this: Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which codified women’s right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Rankin won her seat before she could even vote for herself! She was elected again in 1940. It hurts me deeply that, while I was a freshman in college in Montana, she was still alive, and I didn’t know. Had I known about her, I would have done whatever it took to meet her.
Rankin is best known for being a lifelong pacifist. She voted against both world wars while a member of Congress and served two terms that coincided with the onset of two world wars. She also helped organize anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. It takes big ovaries to be anti-war at any time in our country’s history. Although she was proud of her pacifism, she famously said, “If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
Do me a favor: Every time we commemorate something, ask, “Where are the women?” They are there, but you must look for them.
Ellen Snortland has had a burning desire to write a gender column for decades. Contact her at authorbitebybite.com.