How the Women of the House Flipped the State of the Union Script

It was the most unexpected moment of an otherwise dully divisive evening: a group of lawmakers taking a speech that wasn’t about them and insisting that in fact it was.

Democratic female members of Congress cheer after President Donald Trump said there are more women in Congress than ever before during his second State of the Union address. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

“You weren’t supposed to do that!”

Donald Trump, midway through his State of the Union speech on Tuesday evening, did a rare thing: He applied his habit of rhetorical excess to someone other than himself. “No one,” he said, “has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the newly created jobs in the last year.” The president had apparently not been expecting the line, the statistic bolstering the broader point about the “thriving economy,” to be met with applause. The Democratic women of the House of Representatives, however—nearly all of them clad in white, the symbolic shade of women’s suffrage, as a show of political unity—applauded it anyway.

And then, even though they weren’t supposed to, they did something else: They rose to their feet. First a few of them, then several, and finally all of them, an eddy of brightness within a sea of dark suits, the women cheering, clapping, laughing, and pointing to themselves as job-fillers—reveling in the irony that their presence in the Congressional chamber was one thing a boast-prone president really could claim credit for: Many of the women, indeed, had ended up in their new jobs precisely as a reaction to the presidency and policies of Donald Trump.

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.”

A broad coalition that makes space for individualized nuance: that complicated idea, it turned out, was part of the easy imagecraft of the evening. Nancy Pelosi, perched between the president and an American flag—and fresh off a political victory over Trump, as she refused to bend to his demands for a border wall—presided over the scene, herself clad in the all-white uniform, ensuring its visual harmony. The House speaker gave her caucus a slight nod when the president delivered a line they might applaud. She scowled when Trump lied, and spun, and preached division. As he concluded his speech, she offered him a rousingly petty and therefore exceedingly internet-friendly round of applause. At times on Tuesday, Pelosi resembled a conductor of a human orchestra, aware of the emotions of the audience and attuned to the rhythms of the score, using sweeps of her hands to convey to her musicians when, precisely, the crescendo should swell.

She, too, had some repurposing to do. And her own approach to that work helped foment the other striking moment of an otherwise unstriking speech: a scene that came just a few lines after Trump found himself pleasantly surprised by applause from the Democratic side of the aisle. “Don’t sit yet, you’re gonna like this,” he said teasingly—flirtatiously—to the women who had just risen at his words. He paused dramatically. “Exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote,” the president said, “we also have more women serving in the Congress than at any time before.”

He was right, to an extent: The women did like it. The line may have been historically inaccurate, and it may have been delivered by a president who has been both accused of and known to brag about sexual assault—a president who has referred to women as horses and pigs and dogs—but in that moment, the women of the 116th Congress chose to focus on the message rather than the messenger. They rose again, cheering and applauding: not the president, but themselves. And then they took the celebration further: They started chanting. “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” they yelled, the sentiment spreading through the congressional chamber, thunderous and insistent and, against all odds, jubilant.

And so, for a moment, that most basic cheer, which Donald Trump and his supporters had for so long co-opted as their own, was co-opted once again: The chant—one that, in political settings, has so often suggested swaggering jingoism and cowboy diplomacy and the polite fiction that politics are effectively indistinguishable from sporting events—took on a new kind of symbolism. On Tuesday, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” echoed through the House, a cheer of progress and possibility, its syllables centered on women who were clad in history but looking to the future. As the president delivered his prepared remarks, the lawmakers engaged in an ad-lib that doubled as that most fundamental of American activities: being told you weren’t supposed to do that, and doing it anyway.