Rebecca Traister talks about “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women”

Rebecca Traister found many of the gender conversations during the 2008 elections painful but necessary.

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    Traister was surprised to find herself sobbing when Hillary Clinton conceded defeat in the 2008 US presidential race.
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Rebecca Traister covers women in politics for Salon.com. Her new book, "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women," takes us through the mixed pain and triumph of the women who made headlines in the 2008 presidential election. Recently I had a chance to talk to Traister about her book.

Q. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that until I read your book I didn't even think about the fact that when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary she became the first woman in history to win a US presidential primary contest. Did Hillary’s story kind of get buried in the 2008 election coverage?

Think about the fact that no one told you that – before me! How stunning is that?

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The story of Hillary as a historymaker was without a question buried during 2008. But I should qualify that and say that in part it was buried by Hillary. And we can’t leave that out of the equation. Most people now are critical of Mark Penn [Clinton's campaign adviser] and I am, too. But the advice that he was giving her, which was essentially to de-sex herself, was not out of line with historic experience and expectation about how you run female candidates. What those who have run have done historically is to present themselves as tough, avoid mentioning their own femininity or selling it at all costs and this is what we saw Hillary do. And part of that meant not making a big deal about the fact that she was the first woman candidate. [That strategy] gave a lot of us permission not think about the tremendous historical role that she was playing, and let me tell you, the media took advantage of that permission like nobody’s business. There was no acknowledgment.

Q. Somewhere down the line – maybe when we have our first woman president – will that be when historians will look back and say, “You know, Hillary Clinton really deserves a lot of credit”?

Without a doubt. And I think we’re hearing about it now, too. The conversations we’re having now about gender and politics in the midterm elections are very different from the conversations we were having during Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and even different from the ones we were having during Sarah Palin’s candidacy. Many of them are dismaying in many ways, depending on how you’d like to see women depicted on the stage, and there are many troubled candidacies, but what we are seeing is the expansion of number of models for how women can present themselves in political life. And while it can be maddening, infuriating, it is also how we’re going to get toward gender equality in politics. And that is coming straight off Hillary’s campaign.

I’m of the opinion that Hillary Clinton still could be our first female president. But if it’s not she, it certainly will be somebody who has Hillary to thank for it.

Q. During the 2008 campaign there were such marked differences between the way Hillary Clinton was treated and the way Sarah Palin was treated. Was that due to a beauty bias – and might it have worked the same way between two male candidates?

We would not have seen the same things at work between two men. But that’s not to say that men escape an aesthetic scrutiny. We still talk about John Kennedy beating Richard Nixon in a [1960 presidential] debate because Nixon sweated his way through it. You saw John Kerry get into a flap about Botox during his 2004 campaign. You saw John Edwards get called the Prell girl for his expensive haircuts. We cannot behave as though men don’t get examined for these things, too. However, we can point to the differences between the ways that these conversations take place. It’s important to note that when a male candidate’s looks get criticized it’s often in a way that feminizes him. That’s a crucial difference.

I was not as horrified by the fact that we were discussing what Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were wearing as by the way in which it was being discussed. Many people just thought, "Oh, we shouldn’t talk about it at all." I understand that argument but I just don’t think that it’s realistic.

I was perfectly willing to have conversations, for example, about how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were dressing and part of those conversations involved being critical of some of the angles that people were taking. For example, when you talk about Hillary’s cackle or when Rush Limbaugh worried about how many lines were on her face or when there was a kind of jeering about the pantsuits, that’s when you can say that’s where the sexism comes in. [And there was] a sort of point-and-hoot festival of making fun of Sarah Palin and how much she was spending on her clothes. That kind of stuff is sexist and it’s worth pointing out that it’s sexist.

[But] I don’t think that we should police [these conversations] to the extent that we’re not having them. We should be having these conversations. It’s just that these conversations are not always that fun.

Q. Was the 2008 election more triumphant or painful?

If you look at the story of 2008 as its own election narrative, there was a lot more pain than there was triumph. When you’re talking about women, when you look back at the sexist conversations – the conversations themselves in some ways were just agonizing. However, I am of the belief that to move forward in this country, which is the ultimate triumph, to continue to progress to a state of further inclusiveness, to something closer to racial, gender, and sexual equality, you have to work through the pain. You cannot just pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that you’re over these things.

So, in a sense, the amount of pain provoked by 2008 is totally salubrious for us. Because it’s forcing us to get our hands dirty in a way that we might not have chosen. We might have chosen to have taken an easier path, to have pretended that these were things of the past. But we wouldn’t be getting very far if we had chosen that.

Q. How about Christine O’Donnell? What do you think about her campaign? How is sexism at work there?

In a very complicated way. The stuff I saw the night she won the primary – which is, guys on the news pointing and laughing – I found myself so taken aback by that. I sort of wanted to say, look guys, if somebody had asked you yesterday if this woman had a chance you would have said no. And she’s just proved you wrong. So why is it that you’re laughing at her?

There is no question, I think, objectively speaking, that Christine O’Donnell is a terrible candidate. She is unprepared. She is not particularly engaging, experienced, or articulate on the subjects with which she is presented on the campaign trail. Her politics, to my mind, are horribly conservative, terribly conservative. There is no question that she deserves an enormous amount of criticism. However, the way her gender has had an impact on this is the national obsession with her shortcomings. Let me tell me, around this country right now, there are lots of male candidates who are unprepared, inarticulate, inexperienced, young, and ill-suited to the jobs they are running for and we don’t know any of their names. We have national cameras in Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell, who is hugely behind in the polls, is a candidate in a comparatively small state and yet she has somehow became this figurehead for women in politics.

Q. When you look at the midterm elections, which female candidates are you excited about?

Alex Sink [Democratic candidate for governor in Florida] I feel very excited about. I think she’s just a fabulous candidate. Both of these women are on the line, but Patty Murray [incumbent Democratic candidate for US Senator from Washington State] and Barbara Boxer [incumbent Democratic candidate for US Senator from California] are terrific candidates. And I’ve been very excited about Krystal Ball [Democratic candidate for Congress from Virginia]. She is 28 years old and she has had a totally fraught campaign.

Q. As an author, what did you most hope that readers would take away from your book?

I want those people who lived through the 2008 election – and in many cases suffered through it, on one end or the other – to think about the history that we all made and we all witnessed. I really want those of us who were pained by it or who were exhausted by it to understand the way that living through that election changed our country. Because I believe it did.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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