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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The First Woman to Respond to a State of the Union Was From Illinois

Sen. Joni Ernst is the 16th woman to respond to a State of the Union address, but way back in 1968, Rep. Charlotte Reid was the first.

Rep. Charlotte Reid of Illinois. Photo: Courtesy of the House of Representatives

When I learned that rookie Iowa Senator Joni Ernst was only the 16th woman to be selected to give the opposing party’s response to the President’s State of Union, I was curious if any of her predecessors had a Chicago-area tie. Sure enough, Aurora’s Charlotte Reid, congresswoman from the far western suburbs (1963-1971), not only fit that bill, but she was the first woman in American history ever to rebut the President—then, in 1968, the lamest of ducks, Lyndon Johnson.

Charlotte Reid didn’t get to do the honors solo in 1968—the first woman to do that was New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman in 1995—but Reid was the only woman in a group of 16 Republican responders that included Charles Percy, John Tower, George Murphy, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Melvin Laird.

Some history: In 1966, television networks started offering free airtime for the rebuttal. The first, in response to LBJ’s 1966 State of the Union, was given by another Illinoisan, Senator Everett Dirksen, who was paired with Congressman Gerald Ford. In 1967, the duo performed an encore. By 1968, according to a Chicago Tribune story at the time, the party’s “rank and file” complained that “the Ev and Gerry show lacked sufficient popular appeal.” 

California Senator and former “Hollywood star” George Murphy was asked to direct “to give it flair.” Slate’s Betsy Woodruff quotes a St. Petersburg Times editorial from a couple of days later as calling the group performance “political vaudeville.”

A bit of research turned up a colorful character—Reid died in 2007 at age 93—who served four full terms in Congress and half of a fifth, serving as a member of the House Appropriations committee in her last four years. Richard Nixon interrupted her service by appointing her to the FCC.

According to Lisa Smith, who wrote Reid’s obituary for the Daily Herald, early in her life, Reid “worked under the name Annette King as a featured vocalist on Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club, a radio variety show broadcast in Chicago. She stopped working to start her family…” 

An Aurora resident—born in Kankakee—and mother of four, she entered politics when her husband, Aurora attorney Frank Reid, Jr., who had won the 1962 GOP primary in the reliably Republican 15th District, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 52. His widow was selected by precinct committeeman to replace him on the ticket. She described herself as in a “state of shock,” yet she hit the campaign trail within two weeks of his death and then repeatedly won terms on her own, and by large margins—58 percent, 72 percent, 68 percent and 69 percent in, respectively, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1970. 

The arc and details of her life clearly reflect how far women have come in politics. When she first entered the House of Representatives she was one of 11. Today there are 84.

She told the Tribune in 1967 that “Being a woman in Congress is very advantageous because we receive extra courtesies, men seek our advice and give us every opportunity to express ourselves.” In 1965, the Tribune’s then-Washington bureau chief Walter Trohan wrote that Reid is so respected that “there is talk of running her for the Senate from Illinois.” He also recalled the time she showed up in the doorway of his house—presumably on official business—and he “studied the picture of charm in his doorway for a moment and remarked, `This is the first time in my life I ever felt like kissing a congressman.’”

In 1969, the year after the group rebuttal, Charlotte Reid became the first woman to wear pants on the House floor. According to Slate’s Betsy Woodruff, she got so much attention, including a thumbs up from Gerald Ford, that she never wore pants again. “I am really quite serious about my service in the Congress and I wouldn’t want to do anything that seemed facetious…. Neither would I want to do anything to take away from the femininity of the women in the House, even though I think pants are feminine-looking.” According to a recent piece by the Post’s Annie Groer, Reid wore a “black bell-bottomed pantsuit inside the chamber on Christmas Eve before the House adjourned.”

Reid was a staunch LBJ opponent—inveighing against his Great Society program, particularly the expansion of federal welfare programs and other anti-poverty initiatives, and ardently supporting the war in Vietnam. She backed an amendment that would have denied federal loans to student protestors. She called herself a fiscal and small government conservative: “The federal government has grown big and powerful, and … exercises far too much control over each of us.” After the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools, she introduced a Constitutional amendment to allow students in public schools to pray, explaining the court decision “encourages agnosticism and atheism.” 

Interestingly, Reid was a supporter of the ERA, and, with two of her colleagues, fought to open the House gym to women. 

By 1980, having retired after four years from her seven-year FCC term, she was described by a Washington Post “Style” reporter as “a board-server of great proportions . . . Motorola, Liggett. Mid-Atlantic Banks of New Jersey, and…executive director of Volunteer Trustees of Not-for-Profit Hospitals.” She also served on the board of governors of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and, appointed by Reagan defense secretary Casper Weinberger, on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. Reagan himself also appointed her to the Presidential Task Force on International Private Enterprise. 

Reid also clearly passed on some political chops. Her daughter, Patricia Reid Lindner, a Republican from Sugar Grove, served in the Illinois House from 1993 to 2009.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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