Third Woman in a Row to Deliver State of the Union Response. Does It Matter?

by Christine Jahnke and Kelly Dittmar

Will Gov. Haley’s appearance be “window dressing” or will she seize the opportunity to focus on the distinct realities — economic, social, and political — faced by women?

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will be the third woman in a row selected to deliver the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address. Does it matter that another woman will be laying out the opposition party’s policy agenda? Will Haley’s appearance be “window dressing” or will she seize the opportunity to focus on the distinct realities — economic, social, and political — faced by women?

Former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who delivered the response in 1995, told the Los Angeles Times that Republicans need to do more than just put a woman in front of the camera if “women are going to feel good about the party.”

Today, women are just 9 percent of both the Republican congressional caucus and GOP governors. While Republican leaders may be motivated to put a female face on an otherwise male-dominated party as a way to increase their appeal to women voters, Whitman adds important perspective: “It is not about the messenger. It’s about the message.”

The combination of symbolism and substance may be most effective because it’s both the message and the messenger that matter in making the case to women voters.

Haley’s predecessors seemed to appeal to women’s shared experiences as wives and mothers by invoking personal narratives rather than addressing issues of primary concern to women across the political spectrum.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst introduced herself as a mother and a soldier and saw fit to say that she had saved money for college by working on the morning biscuit line at a fast food restaurant. Her chief prescription for stagnant wages and lost jobs was support for the Keystone pipeline. When then-Speaker of the House John Boehner announced Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ selection in 2014, he described her as a rising star and “more importantly — a mom.” Rogers spoke about getting married after she was elected and having three children, including one with Downs Syndrome.

As the daughter of Sikh immigrants, Haley’s personal story is inspiring. She was the first woman to be elected to the top office in South Carolina, in addition to being a mother of two school-age children and wife of a military veteran. As a second-term governor and leading vice-presidential contender, she has the credentials, experience, and opportunity to be more than window dressing. In addition to being an empathic messenger, will she offer a message that resonates with women voters?

Haley represents a state where nine people were killed in a mass shooting just seven months ago. The shooter was able to purchase a gun due to a current loophole in the background check system — an issue President Obama is expected to address Tuesday in light of executive actions he announced last week. Women are more likely than men to support those actions, according to a CNN/ORC poll, and consistently express greater support for gun control measures in public polling. In this context and with the perspective she brings from her home state, will Haley meet women where they are on tackling gun issues?

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who delivered the response in 1995, told the Los Angeles Times that Republicans need to do more than just put a woman in front of the camera.

Gov. Whitman delivered her response from the historic legislative chamber in Trenton. Haley may choose to use South Carolina’s state capitol as a backdrop to highlight the leadership she displayed in the contentious debate over the legislature’s decision to remove the confederate flag from Capitol grounds. Haley bucked the most conservative voices in her party to support the flag’s removal. At a time when women are more likely than men to view racism as a problem in America, according to an August 2015 Pew Poll, and have stood on the front lines of racial justice debates, will Haley address these issues in her response?

If Haley’s remarks are like previous SOTU rebuttals, they will be focused on the economy.

Americans view the economy as the most important problem facing the country today, according to the latest Gallup poll. But what economic message will resonate most with women?

As the youngest current governor and a working mother of school-aged kids, she is uniquely positioned to speak to the prime concern of women of all ages: the value of women’s work. From joblessness for older women to the unpaid work of caregiving, housekeeping, and homemaking, women’s work remains undervalued in the U.S. economy. Additionally, the gender gap in wages — where women make 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man — persists.

These bread and butter issues are not only likely to be raised by the President, but are key parts of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 agenda to which Republican candidates have been loathe to respond. Given the ongoing challenge the GOP has in speaking to women, Governor Haley could have a real moment if she chooses to seize it.

Christine K. Jahnke is a debate and speech coach and the author of THE WELL-SPOKEN WOMAN www.wellspokenwoman.com. Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers-New Brunswick. She also writes for Presidential Genderwatch 2016.