Rebecca Traister is a staff writer for Salon and author of the new book Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women. Traister covered the 2008 election for Salon, and the book explores how the campaigns, the candidates and the media coverage of the race represented a watershed moment in the history of gender in America. It has received rave reviews from the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review and Slate, and I highly recommend it.
One of the most fascinating parts of the narrative that Traister lays out is her own story in relation to the election. Traister started out as a Hillary Clinton detractor, but watching Clinton make history, and receive little of the praise, credit or respect that she deserved for doing so, turned her around. “She taught me so much,” Traister says of Clinton. And while many young women initially rejected her, “the campaign, and Hillary herself, opened young women’s eyes and changed the way they felt.” And that, Traister says, is exactly what happened for her – by the end of the campaign season, she found that she had become a Hillary supporter.
At the heart of Traister’s book is the fact that when it comes to gender in America, this most recent election was a hugely impactful one. It’s clear as we approach the midterms and are confronted daily with the (un)reality of Mama Grizzlies and women candidates so opposed to women’s bodily autonomy that they seek to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest, that whatever progress was made over the course of the election season should not be taken lightly or for granted.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Rebecca Traister.
Chloe Angyal: What made you want to write a book about gender and the 2008 election?
Rebecca Traister: When I was covering the election, I had no plans to write a book. But what happened was that you had Hillary and Palin, who were the historic candidates. Michelle was this incredibly historic in a way that was reminiscent of how Hillary had been historic in 1993, when she’d been this rule-breaking candidate for First Lady. Michelle had a lot of those same qualities. And there was so much added focus on Michelle because she was Black, and so her gender and her race became issues in the way she was covered right from the start. If you look at Maureen Dowd’s coverage of her, if you look at the way that she was so quickly characterized as an angry Black woman, for being honest and direct, the complicated ways that the media covered Michelle were remarkable right from the start. Elizabeth Edwards was also an incredible story, even before it became clear that there was a scandal, because the Edwards campaign hired feminist bloggers very early on. It was one of the early campaign scandals. They foresaw, in a way that the other campaigns didn’t, that women were going to figure into this race, and that young women were going to figure into the race. And they went straight to the feminist blogosphere, which was a fascinating choice to make at that point. It was very daring. It turned out to end very badly for them. And then there was Bill Clinton, who was turning gender expectations on their head by being the First Man candidate. The reversal of roles, especially with an alpha male like Bill Clinton, is a big part of what happens when you have a woman running for president. We not only have to get used to the feminine being the powerful, but we have to get used to the idea of Bill Clinton being secondary to his wife. So all those were things I was covering as a reporter. I didn’t decide to write a book until the very end of the election, and only when I sat down to write the book did I realize that all these things were part of this giant narrative in which women were pulled into the presidential process like never before.
CA: Who are your favorite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?
RT: Ántonia from My Ántonia is the most honest answer. It’s t of my favorite books. It’s about Scandinavian immigrants in the Midwest, and she’s tough and smart and wonderful. But it’s also a really literary choice, because it’s so spare and elegant, and such a love story, both about this woman and about the country, this romantic love of country that was tied up in the immigrant experience of settling the country. My favorite fictional heroines are all the ones I read when my sensibility was being shaped, like Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. It’s really the books that I read as a teenage girl who shaped my romantic ideas about what it is to fall into a book. But my absolute top favorite would have to be Auntie Mame from the Patrick Dennis novel, because I aspire to the kind of exuberant craziness that she’s the pinnacle of. But in reality I’m a lot more like Hermione Granger.
In real life, if you had asked me three years ago, I would have passed out with surprise if you told me that this is what I would answer in 2010. I was a very anti-Hillary person, for political reasons, who became, in the end, a very ardent Hillary supporter. And then in writing the book about her and tracing her path, I really grew to admire her more than I ever thought I would. I write in the book about how distant I felt from her. I was in high school when the Clintons were elected, and I was thrilled by Bill Clinton’s election, but I never had that strong sense of identification that so many women had with Hillary. She was of a different generation. I admired her, but I didn’t feel any powerful bond with her, and by the time she ran for president, I was really politically disillusioned with her, and felt this incredibly resentment that everyone expected me to have powerful feelings about Hillary. I just didn’t. I was interested in her, as a story. But by the end of her campaign, and by the end of writing the book, I guess she is a hero for me. I still can’t believe I’m saying that.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
RT: All of them. It has been the worst summer. The story of Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain made me want to bang my head against the wall. The obsession over Chelsea’s wedding and the fetishization of it as proof that she turned out to be a great person made me want to bang my head against the wall. The Mama Grizzlies often make me want to bang my head against a wall. The trading on reproductive rights to get healthcare made me want to bang my head against a wall.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
RT: The challenge that is coming from the right. And it’s a challenge that is only dangerous because of a history on the left of not embracing feminism tightly enough. The left, as the side of social progress in the last century, has always had a very ambivalent relationship with the cause of women’s equality. In part, the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was born out of the inequities of the anti-war and civil rights movements, the fact that all this progressive, enlightened thinking about all kinds of issues, about labor, class and race, often did not extend to gender.
And more recently, we have seen a Democratic Party in which politicians, after 2004, began to distance themselves from the reproductive rights part of the Democratic platform, after John Kerry’s loss, which a lot of people irrationally blamed somehow on abortion. And all kinds of people, including Hillary Clinton, tried to distance themselves from strong pro-choice positions. That continued with the strategy to get a majority in Congress by running anti-choice Democrats, which to me represented a fundamental beginning of a distancing between progressivism and feminism. To my mind, there should be no distance; they’re tied up with one another, they’re one and the same. If you want to build a progressive majority but your way of doing that is by leaving out women’s rights, you have a real problem. We saw that manifest in the healthcare struggles, and we saw a version of it in the Clinton campaign. We saw what was often not acknowledged as open sexism and misogyny, and certainly an enormous amount of discomfort with this powerful woman, this interesting, unrelenting, ambitious and competitive woman. There was a lot of discomfort with her from people in her own party.
Feminism has not been embraced as a particularly popular social movement by people who believe or should believe, as part of their worldview, in what it represents. What that means is that Sarah Palin was brought in, in part, as a result of the coolness toward Hillary Clinton and more broadly toward her history-making qualities. I’m not saying that Clinton should have won; what I’m saying is that there wasn’t a lot of celebration or even acknowledgment that Hillary Clinton was this history-making figure during her run for president. There wasn’t a lot of celebration from the left and that left a lot of her supporters not just disappointed the way you are when your candidate loses, but furious, because they perceived from their own party a lack of interest in women’s history making. And that was not an entirely inaccurate perception. That left the door open for John McCain to pick Sarah Palin.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
RT: Pasta, red wine and Linda Hirschman, because we would never stop talking and arguing.