It was that most unexpected of moments in a State of the Union event that was otherwise dully divisive: unscripted, human, fun. The rote inertias of party politics colliding with the brief delights of, simply, a party. But the scene that erupted in the House chamber on Tuesday was also a moment of reclamation. Here was a line in a speech that, like most of the president’s lines, was meant to be about him; and here was a group of women—many of them newly elected to Congress and many of them women of color—insisting that it was, in fact, about them.
There is politics as performance and there is politics as an intimate and urgent force in people’s lives; the State of the Union, a spectacle that is also a setting for declarations of presidential policy, summons both. The speech often hosts a series of uncomfortable collisions—between empowerment and exploitation, between people highlighted as fellow citizens and people used as props. The Democratic women of the House, their outfits all but demanding attention and comment, effectively weaponized those tensions: Knowing the power of the image—understanding the capabilities of the strategic spectacle—they essentially objectified themselves. But they didn’t exploit themselves: In their uniforms, instead, they were insistently joyful and insistently vocal and, perhaps above all, insistently present. Within an event designed to center itself on the chief executive, they reclaimed their time. (“Thank you very much,” the president said, after the women first stood to be counted, perhaps attempting to restore the evening’s promised Trumpcentrism. “Thank you very much.”)
The women’s choice of white as the outfit of unity was its own kind of reclamation. “Suffragette white,” after all, has an extremely fraught history, in large part because suffrage itself has an extremely fraught history. It wasn’t “women,” the collective, who in practice got the vote in the America of 1920, as Trump would later claim; it was merely white women who did. The suffragist agenda, in a decision whose errors would reverberate into a feminist movement that would go on to preach justice but too often fail to practice it, deliberately excluded women of color.
But reclamation, as a political weapon but also as a broader ethic, allows a new kind of history to be made. (The white worn on Tuesday—a uniform chosen for the occasion by Representative Lois Frankel of Florida, the chair of the Democratic Women’s Working Group—echoed the all-white outfits Democratic women wore to Trump’s first State of the Union, in 2017, and the black they wore in 2018, as a visual nod to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.) The lawmakers who donned white on Tuesday found ways both to acknowledge the shamefulness of history and to repurpose it—but to do so, they made clear, on their own terms. As Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts tweeted on Tuesday evening: “The women of the #116th were asked to wear white tonight in tribute to the #suffragetes Tonight, I honor women like #AlicePaul who led the movement & women like #IdaB who were excluded from it. Kente cloth & the color white. Holding space for both #womanists & #feminists, always.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York—acknowledging the fact that Shirley Chisholm, as well as Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, wore white in ceremonial settings as a nod to suffrage—put it like this: “I wore all-white today to honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come. From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement.”