When South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivers the Republican response following President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night, she will become the seventeenth woman in U.S. history to deliver the opposing party’s response to the big speech, according to a tally of all of the televised responses over the last half century by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The 2016 SOTU marks the 50th anniversary of the annual speech being televised. The first State of the Union address broadcast on national TV was delivered by Lyndon Johnson on January 17, 1966. Two years later, a woman was one of a group of senators and representatives that delivered the official Republican response to Johnson’s address.
Below, find a list of the names of all of the women who’ve had the distinguished honor of delivering the response along with a some interesting anecdotes about a few of the key women who’ve made the speech over the last five decades. Prior to the Republican response to last year’s SOTU address, Slate compiled a comprehensive chronicle of all the women who have delivered the response that is well worth reading.
U.S. Rep. Charlotte Reid (R) of Illinois, 1968
U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (D) of Hawaii, 1970
U.S. Rep. Leonor Sullivan (D) of Missouri, 1972
U.S. Rep. Martha Griffiths (D) of Michigan, 1972
U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D) of Conn., 1983
U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of Calif., 1984
Missouri Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods (D), 1986
New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (R), 1995
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) of Washington, 1999
U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R), 2000
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D), 2004 and 2005
Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius (D), 2008
Texas state Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D), (Spanish-language response), 2008
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, 2014
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, (Spanish-language response) 2014
U.S. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa (R), 2015
Charlotte Reid, a U.S. Rep. from Illinois was the first woman to deliver a response to the president’s SOTU address in 1968. Of course, back then, neither party would even think of allowing a woman to do such a deed herself (that wouldn’t come till decades later), so Reid, a Republican from Illinois, appeared on TV alongside 15 of her Congressional colleagues — all men, including future presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush — and gave the rebuttal to Lyndon Johnson’s speech. According to Slate, the response was panned by the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times as “political vaudeville.” It went so far as to criticize Reid by name. “Some performances were only in bad taste, such as Illinois Rep. Charlotte Reid figuratively wrapping herself in the American flag and waving the banner of motherhood, in an effort to discourage protest over Vietnam,” the scathing editorial read.
Reid, as Slate pointed out, was better known for the becoming first woman to wear a pantsuit on the House floor, an occasion in 1969 that drew Congressman running into the chamber to catch a glimpse of her and that made headlines in newspapers as far away as Paris, according to a story in The Washington Post. “Gerald Ford told me he thought it was great and I should do it more often,” she said of the future president, who was the House minority leader at the time.
Prior to her decade-long tenure in the House, Reid enjoyed a career as a nationally acclaimed singer, and only ran for public office after her husband died. She was a strong proponent of women’s rights and thought government could use more women — she was one of only 11 women in the House when she was first elected to Congress in 1963.
“Men respect our opinions and ideas,” Reid once reportedly told a group of Republican women. “Small as our numbers are [in the House], we create a needed balance in the complicated business of adapting our governmental processes to the requirements of a changing society.”
Reid was appointed to the FCC by President Richard Nixon in 1971, and she resigned her seat to take the position, becoming only the second woman to serve on the commission in its history. She died in 2007.
Though women — some of them household names, like Barbara Boxer — continued to appear in the televised responses, they were always accompanied by men until almost three decades after Reid’s breakthrough in 1968.
A woman wouldn’t deliver a solo response until Republican New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman became the first to do so in 1995. Whitman gave the response to Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address and it was noteworthy because, in addition to the gender implications, Whitman was also the first sitting governor to deliver an official response and she delivered it on live television from the statehouse in New Jersey’s capital, Trenton.
“Before I begin, I assure you, I am not going to ask for equal time,” Whitman quipped to a raucous round of applause. The remark was a reference to the length of Clinton’s address, which clocked in at 9,190 words — still, by far, the longest SOTU address ever. In a 2014 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Whitman recalled that her response was also the first time it was delivered before a live audience.
Whitman was a rising star in the Republican party at the time and during her speech touched on welfare reform, reigning in government and how some of “the president’s ideas sounded pretty Republican” (another big laugh line), among other things. Clinton’s address lasted for more than an hour and 20 minutes, while Whitman spoke for about 12 minutes. Watch his address here and her response here. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2004 and 2005, then-House minority leader Nancy Pelosi issued the rebuttal to President George W. Bush, although she didn’t fly solo either time. In 2004, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota was her co-pilot on that mission, and in 2005, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada sat by her side as she took the Bush administration to task for not outlining a clear plan to end the U.S. presence in Iraq. Pelosi, a longtime representative from California, went on to become Speaker of the House in 2007 and became the first woman to sit behind the president during a State of the Union address. She’s the only woman to ever deliver the response in back-to-back years.
Last year, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa gave the response to President Obama’s response, though she billed it more as a conversation about the concerns of everyday Americans than an explicit rebuttal to the president. A few days before delivering the response, Ernst made drew national attention and raised some eyebrows with a political ad that mentioned castration. And Ernst’s response was memorable too. She made headlines with a remark from her speech about her humble beginnings and how her mother slipped plastic bread bags over her feet on rainy days because she only had one good pair of shoes. Watch her full speech here.
Similar to Ernst, Haley has billed tonight’s speech not as a response, but as an “address.” She was selected by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has high expectations for Haley’s turn in the spotlight and heaped effusive praise on the South Carolina governor the day before the speech. “If you want to hear an inclusive leader who’s visionary, who’s got a path for the future, who’s brought people together, who’s unified, it’s Nikki Haley,” Paul Ryan told CNN in an interview on Monday. “Believe me, I understand the stakes can be high for a person doing this speech,” Ryan, who delivered the Republican response in 2011, continued. “I think she’s a natural.”
No matter what Haley decides to do with the national spotlight and where it takes her political career afterwards, one thing is for sure: the path she’ll head down on Tuesday was blazed by a group of remarkable women.