The Feministing Five: Rebecca Traister

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.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/kaelin/ Matt

    Regarding the lack of “celebration” for Hillary Clinton, three (justified) reasons come to mind:

    1) She entered the primary as the clear favorite for the party’s nomination, so it was known for quite a while she would make history as a contender for the nomination. While her campaign was historic for a number of reasons, her defeat was still a bit of a “letdown” of sorts.

    2) Since the Democrats in Michigan were running a primary too early to meet the DNC’s rules, their delegates were to be disallowed, and all the major candidates removed their names from the ballot accordingly. Except Clinton. Then her campaign lobbied to get the Michigan delegation restored and to allocate ZERO delegates to Obama. This plan essentially sought to change the rules in the most self-serving way possible, in a way that blatantly disregarded the will of Democrats in Michigan (not accounting for who the “uncommitted” voters would have supported, or all the supporters of Obama, Edwards, and Richardson who stayed at home and would have lowered Clinton’s vote share) . Granted, it’s a lot easier for a candidate like Obama to play by the rules when he’s ahead, but Clinton’s campaign was especially unreasonable in this moment.

    3) This issue is probably an extension of #2, but Clinton continued to campaign hard even when it was clear with a few states left that she could not win the election by the rules set place by the Democratic Party. Even many of the “superdelegates” (influential Democrats who got a full vote as a delegate) who tended to prefer Clinton earlier in the campaign switched to Obama — they wanted to reinforce what the voters said in the primaries and caucuses (at least in the ones allowed by party rules), and they wanted to avoid the disaster of one candidate (arguably) worming away the nomination. She still stayed in the race after this support went away and made winning implausible, even if she did get her way with Florida and Michigan.

    Regarding #2 and #3, while Clinton is allowed to lobby and continue her campaign to the very end, she did not emerge as a gracious loser. Especially since Obama is making bigger history, it’s hard her opponents of an ungracious loser (and even the exhausted party leadership) to honor the candidate with a celebration. Even if the DNC tries hard to honor Clinton (and maybe they did — I didn’t pay attention to the conventions), the framing of the story will still focus on how bitter of a campaign everyone went through and that this moment is an attempt to pander to her base. I remember the word “catharsis” being tossed around a bit — the fatal problem may have been Clinton supporters coming to grips with defeat *at* the convention rather than beforehand (if the conclusion had been obvious earlier, everyone would have been more open to focusing on the “positive” — for Clinton and Obama — when the convention took place).

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    I think the problem that Democrats have with Feminism is not them compromising on the abortion issue. It is that they have generally ignored all the other aspects of Feminism and allowed Republicans and their ilk to define Feminism to be whatever suits their agenda. Certainly abortion is an important issue, but it is also probably the most difficult issue of Feminism to make an airtight argument for. Perhaps not everything can be as obviously necessary as Al Franken’s (and even that measure faced a fair amount of resistance), but they can rally their base and inspire new people to support the party when it fights for some straightforward policies. The party should challenge its members to think about and fight for these issues. They should strive to be Feminists and use the power of their example to define Feminism. It’s not that health care coverage isn’t important (it has implications for gender, too) or that abortion isn’t important, but the party can’t focus on issues of this complexity and leave the low-hanging fruit to rot. Get people comfortable with the basics, and then they’ll have the background and experience to persuasively respond to the tougher issues.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tarheelinnyc/ Lori

    “Especially since Obama is making bigger history, it’s hard her opponents of an ungracious loser (and even the exhausted party leadership) to honor the candidate with a celebration”

    Bigger history?? I was personally unaware that history’s size was measurable. Additionally, I find the idea of measuring the levels of oppression of a black man and white woman to be completely contrary to what social justice is about.

    And since when did we have to choose between celebrating one way of making history with another? Obama and Clinton both ran historic campaigns, as did Palin, and whatever my personal opinions may be about the politics of each, I was proud to witness the diversified race for the presidency. Even if Clinton was less than gracious, it does not make her journey less historic.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kaelin/ Matt

    “Bigger history?? I was personally unaware that history’s size was measurable.”

    Winning the nomination is more historical than contending for the nomination, in much the same way as Clinton’s campaign is more historical than Elizabeth Dole’s 2000 Presidential campaign (polled competitively but didn’t get enough funding to actually run in any caucuses or primaries) or Alan Keyes’s 2000 Presidential campaign (finished with the third most [Republican] delegates but was never a contender).

    Also, while Palin did run on a more competitive ticket, I will note that Geraldine Ferraro had her beat by 24 years as the first woman on a major party ticket.