How Presidents Talk About Women in SOTU Speeches

Since the 1920s, the addresses have gone from nearly all-"men" affairs to a roughly equal gender footing.
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Brad Borevitz

Though contraception is rarely mentioned in State of the Union addresses, it might make an appearance tonight, since President Obama is expected to highlight the protections of the Affordable Care Act, one of which is free birth control. If so, it would be in keeping with a general trend of women and women's issues playing a greater role in State of the Union speeches over the years.

The above chart comes courtesy of Brad Borevitz, an artist and programmer who uses the full text of the speeches, along with the coding platform Processing.js, to analyze State of the Union addresses for word frequency. (Here, I've used "men" and "women," but you can use whatever terms you like with his sotuGraph tool.)

The chart doesn't necessarily reflect female-friendly policies—in the heat of the late-'70s Equal Rights Amendment push, for example, the "women" line is nearly flat. But it does provide a strikingly accurate representation of female participation in American society over the decades.

One interesting trend is that mentions of men tick up significantly during wartime. There's a big jump just before 1920, during World War I, and during the '40s, for World War II, as well as during Vietnam and Afghanistan/Iraq. "Women," meanwhile, barely make an appearance until the 1940s, when women began to participate both in military efforts and the workforce in greater numbers. In 1944, for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt mentioned women a whopping three times in one paragraph in calling for a draft in order to to reduce "suffering and sorrow and bloodshed":

When the very life of the Nation is in peril the responsibility for service is common to all men and women. In such a time there can be no discrimination between the men and women who are assigned by the Government to its defense at the battlefront and the men and women assigned to producing the vital materials essential to successful military operations. A prompt enactment of a National Service Law would be merely an expression of the universality of this responsibility.

And after that, women largely disappear once again. Aside from a brief blip during the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, women garner little mention until the 1980s, the decade when Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice and Geraldine Ferraro became the first female candidate for vice president. In his 1984 speech, Ronald Reagan mentioned women five times, both in saying "servicemen and -women," but also when he talked about "ensuring women's rights" and describing how, "In 1983 women filled 73 percent of all the new jobs in managerial, professional, and technical fields."

Over time, men have been mentioned less and less, and women more and more. State of the Union speeches may not matter much politically, but they do reflect the priorities of the moment—so it's good to see that today, the two genders' lines are nearly overlapping.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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