On Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump gave his first-ever State of the Union address. Between hollow calls for political unity and revisionist retellings of American history, Trump took the opportunity to tout the few political victories of his presidency—bragging about the devastating repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and his stocking of federal courts with conservative judges.
Trump’s speech was notably void of references to women’s rights. The National Women’s Law Center tweeted last night that the word “woman” appeared only once in his address, adding: “We know where we stand in Trump’s vision of our union.” The president’s attempt to minimize his administration’s attacks on women, people of color, immigrants and other communities, however, fell short—because across the country, women were listening, watching and fighting back.
On Capitol Hill, some women lawmakers skipped the speech entirely. Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) were among the lawmakers who didn’t attend the address. Their absence was meant to serve as a rebuke to the Trump administration, as well as his divisive and regressive agenda.
“I don’t trust him, I don’t appreciate him and I wouldn’t waste my time sitting in that House listening to what he has to say,” Waters said on MSNBC. “He does not deserve my attention.” Jayapal, in a Medium post explaining her decision, said she refused “to dignify a president who has used the platform of the Oval Office to fan the flames of racism, sexism and hatred.”
Other lawmakers, however, chose to push back in person—and in the company of activists and everyday Americans who served as reminders of the ways Trump’s agenda has set much progress off-course.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) brought San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who was one of the most vocal critics of the Trump administration’s failure to provide adequate aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Months later, much of Puerto Rico remains without power; while Cruz has persistently pursued solutions in the months since the devastating disaster, Trump’s administration has served up little more relief than personal insults and sweeping derogatory statements towards the Americans on the island. California Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) brought a young DREAMer and immigration activist named Denea Joseph as her guest, shining a light on the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-immigration agenda that has left those protected by the Obama-era DACA program uncertain of their legal status and living in fear of deportation. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) invited family members of immigrants who had been deported—including Cindy Garcia, whose 39-year-old father was recently deported after living in the United States for more than 30 years.
“The Garcia family’s story is heartbreaking and infuriating,” Dingell said in a statement. “It is both a symptom of a long-broken immigration system and a new, rash immigration policy that does not recognize the difference between a hard-working family man and a criminal. This must change.”
Under the Trump administration, ICE raids and legislative attacks on legal immigrants have escalated, all while the Justice Department has issued threats and warnings to sanctuary cities across the country. In his speech that evening, Trump spoke about his proposed immigration plan, which offered some concessions to DREAMers but still demanded $25 billion for the president’s proposed border wall. Earlier this month, Trump expressed distaste for immigrants from non-white majority countries, which he referred to as “sh-tholes” and proposed that the United States instead accept more immigrants from countries “like Norway.”
Lawmakers in attendance also showed solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation during Trump’s address by wearing all black—an action echoing the same fashion-centered approach to the #MeToo moment undertaken by celebrities at this year’s Golden Globes.
After Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) called on her colleagues to take part, a massive #SOTUBlackout shaped up. In their quiet protest, the lawmakers participating not only stood with survivors and brought attention to the epidemic of sexual harassment, but also reminded guests of the more than 15 women who have publicly accused the president of sexual misconduct. Trump has dismissed their claims as “fake news,” calling the women who have come forward “liars.”
— House Democrats (@HouseDemocrats) January 30, 2018
It has become crystal clear that sexual harassment is rampant throughout all industries in our country. So to show solidarity with all workers who have experienced sexual harassment, I’m wearing black to the #SOTU and saying #TimesUP. #SOTUBLACKOUT pic.twitter.com/cutVORNNzE
— Rep. Suzan DelBene (@RepDelBene) January 30, 2018
Across the country, activists and feminist celebrities also talked back to Trump at parallel addresses meant to focus on resisting his agenda.
In New York, actors Cynthia Nixon and Rosie Perez, comedian Kathy Najimy and singer Andra Day joined forces with organizers and advocates at the People’s State of the Union, calling for unity and action in advance of the upcoming 2018 elections.
“We have to love our undocumented brothers and sisters,” Paola Mendoza, artistic director at Women’s March, said at the event. “We have to love our trans communities. We have to love our Indigenous people. We have to love the women who have said #TimesUp and #MeToo. We have to love our planet.”
The speakers also highlighted the power of women to change the nation’s course in November. “Radical women are used to pushing boulders up hills,” Najimy said. “Women by the millions are rising up and demanding change.”
In Washington, D.C., movement leaders struck a similar tone during the State Of Our Union address. National Domestic Workers Alliance Executive Director Ai-jen Poo, Me Too founder Tarana Burke, Mónica Ramirez of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, MomsRising Executive Director Kristin Rowe Finkbeiner and Arisha Hatch of Color of Change were among those participating in the event, broadcast live during Trump’s own speech, in a push to advocate for policy solutions and mobilize women voters.
“2018 is a critical year for women,” Poo said in a statement before the address. “We have already demonstrated that we are willing to carry more than our share of the weight in defending our democracy. It’s now time for action and solutions — on everything from sexual assault and harassment to low wages and pay equity, from elder care and childcare to paid family leave.”
“We are coming together to give the State of Our Union,” Finkbeiner added in the statement. “We take this unprecedented step because President Trump and so many of our political leaders are completely out of step with women, who are 51 percent of our population; and this is hurting our mothers, sisters, children, economy and our country. Our safety and basic rights—including access to health care, to a living wage, and to the supports we need to care for our children—are under direct attack. For low-income women, women of color and immigrant women, the situation is even worse. Make no mistake: The fight for women’s rights is the fight for our nation’s future.”
Trump’s administration, and his first year as president, were marked by a surge in feminist activism and women’s political participation. After his victory, record numbers of women expressed an interest in running for office; in the 2017 elections, they took center stage—and swept it. The historic Women’s March movement, launched around the world with at least 999 marches on all six continents the day after his inauguration, re-invigorated the fight for women’s political and social equality and ushered in a year of “resistance” to the Trump agenda led, by and large, by women.
“The racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism and white nationalism that defines Trump’s administration, and is reinforced in much of his State of the Union speech, still exists everywhere—but so do we. And we will challenge it wherever it exists, from the highest seat of power to local policies and decision-making,” Women’s March said in a statement after Trump’s address. “It’s time that we channel the energy and activism into tangible strategies and concrete wins in 2018. The rise of the woman is the rise of the nation and we are the leaders that we’ve been waiting for.”