2008 Presidential Election

Review: Rebecca Traister's new book Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women

The 2008 election will be noted in American history as much for its destination as its journey.  The composition of the candidates and supporting characters prompted long overdue conversations about gender, race, and what it means to be an American.  In her new book, Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, writer Rebecca Traister revisits these conversations and begins a new conversation by arguing that the 2008 elections were ultimately good for women.

Good for women?  That might be difficult for any one who watched the gender dynamics of the 2008 Election to believe.  What about the incessant pantsuit talk?  The Mom-in-Chief backlash? Are we even going to talk about Palin's faux feminism? Traister manages to comprehensively chronicle these events, thoroughly analyze what she calls "campaigning while female," and argue that the path to progress requires us to move forward, despite setbacks.

Traister separates herself from other writers in this arena by offering smart and pointed criticism of unlikely characters from members of the center-Left media to feminist leaders.  Traister takes on Chris Matthew's "premature jubilation" in response to Clinton's Iowa primary defeat and the subsequent crescendo of male-bashing that ensued. "The eagerness to trash Clinton had been laid bare," Traister writes, "and it reeked of a particular kind of relief: relief from the guys who had thought they were going to have to hold their noses and get pushed around by some dame."  In addition, Traister recounts various exchanges between Gloria Steinem and younger feminists such as Shelby Knox that capture the generational tensions around Clinton's candidacy.    

Unlike Clinton's failed-Iowa strategy - where her campaign took women voters for granted -  Traister courts her target audience by presenting herself as both a keen cultural observer and the reader's witty best friend. Traister augments her analysis by skillfully weaving in the tale her own emotional rollercoaster:  an early Edwards supporter who found Michelle Obama too cool to be objective about, and who in the face of male-dominated media's scourge of Hillary Clinton found herself rooting (though not voting) for the former-first lady.  "I didn't want Hillary to win the Democratic nomination," Traister writes, "I didn't want John Edwards out of the race.  I didn't want Barack Obama to suffer a hope-squelching loss.  But I knew with primal surety that if I had been a New Hampshire resident on January 8, I would have pulled a lever for the former first lady with a song in my heart and a bird flipped at Chris Matthews, Roy Sekoff, Keith Olbermann and every other guy who'd gotten his rocks off by imagining Hillary's humiliation."  If I have one constructive criticism of the book, it is that I only wish there had been even more of Traister in it. 

After reading the book, I had a few questions for the author.  I hope you find Rebecca's answers as illuminating as I did. 

AM: It seems that neither Clinton nor Palin found a way to be simultaneously authentic and likable to a broad swath of women, much less Americans. You write about Clinton, "[T]he success of her ego-stroking strategy provided a disheartening lesson about how easily a powerful woman can change the mind of men if only she's willing to conform to power models that reassure rather than threaten them." Of Palin you write, she "gained her power by doing everything modern women have believed they did not have to do: presenting herself as maternal and sexual, sucking up to men, evincing an awshucks lack of native ambition. She met with such adulation because her posture reinforced antiquated gender norms."  Is the lesson to choose authenticity over cultivation?  Is there any way to marry their models?  And if both models requiring conceding power to men, what does that say about our political structure?

I actually do believe that there were moments at which Clinton managed to present her authentic self, and break free of the set-ups for how women are expected to act (in order to be taken seriously politically, to be "likable enough," etc). Several people in the book noted that, for example, in New Hampshire, when her loss was all but assured by press and polling, Hillary began to behave like herself more than ever before (and more than she would for some time after). She kind of told Chris Matthews where to get off, cracked jokes about sexism to the Iron My Shirt guys. Everyone only thinks about the moment when she teared up, but in fact her days campaigning in New Hampshire were Hillary at her loosest and most direct. She got a lot of that energy back toward the end of her campaign, when she was just plowing forward, when everyone was telling her to drop out. Those were the moments -- when, perhaps, it seemed she had nothing to lose -- that Clinton let go a little bit and really seemed to bring her unadulterated self to the trail. I do hope that there is a lesson there, since not coincidentally, those were the periods during which she was met with cheers and approval.

I would hope that looking back at that pattern would allow women candidates to have some more confidence in their own abilities to be themselves more of the time. But the other inescapable fact -- and one that I think of all the time when people talk about Palin's persona as if it's extra-fake or something -- is that the public persona constructed by most politicians, male or female, is just that -- a construction. We demand that our politicians perform for us, put on a show -- whether that show is of familial devotion or cross-partisan cooperation or just folksiness. The show that women put on, and that you quote me describing above, is of course colored by and shaped by gender expectation, which makes our analysis of it a bit more acute, perhaps? Or novel.

AM: You don't pardon your own behavior. "None of us were above thinking about how Clinton sounded or looked or what she wore," you write.  "We were like babies first encountering a new object: a potential president who had breasts and hips and a high voice, who was once pregnant and whose female skin changed as it aged.  It was only natural that we were sometimes going to get tripped up and befuddled in how we talked about her."  So where does that leave modern media?  Where did you draw your own line in terms of what you were willing to comment on and what you were not?"

RT: Alas, there's no firm answer to that question. I drew my own lines by gut. Stuff that dismayed many -- reactions to the lines in Clinton's face, her pantsuits -- dismayed me as well, but also fascinated and cheered me because I was so anxious to /have the conversation/ that acknowledged that in Clinton we were seeing a potential president who was different from all those who had preceded her. I was tired of pretending that there was nothing different about her, because that was dishonest. But of course the desire to acknowledge her difference is very different from saying "Hey, let's all pile on her outfit!" And people who objected to the attention to her clothes or hair or voice (and I was among them too!) were very right to raise their objections. They key is to be able to say -- let's talk about what's messed up about this, or where the double standards are, or why this bothers us, or when it might be appropriate to notice a candidate's physical or sartorial attributes and when it's not...It's all an evolving discussion of how we talk about public women.

AM:  You sketch out the limitations of the media including the crimes of the Leftist blogosphere and traditional media alike.  I particularly enjoyed Maddow's pointing out how tired and lazy cable news can be. How do we change those dynamics?

RT: It's about expanding the perspective of the mainstream media to include people of more colors, genders, ages, and ideologies. It's about having a commentariat that reflects the electorate.

AM: Amen.


Syndicate content